It’s almost impossible to believe that it’s been eight years since writer/director Joe Cornish gave us the thrilling sci-fi action work Attack the Block, which was as much about alien dogs chasing people (including a very young newcomer named John Boyega) through a South London housing project, as it was about life in a housing projects on a slightly less frantic day. Using a slightly younger primary cast and the same sensibility about constructing quality action sequences, Cornish finally returns with The Kid Who Would Be King, a spirited adventure story that modernizes the King Arthur legend without pandering or stooping to make the film more accessible to younger audiences. Honestly, it seems just as likely that older audiences are going to have as good a time with this one as youngsters.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the film’s story is in its setup, in which dark forces summoned by the enchantress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) are able to gain a foothold in the world because of a sustained negativity that has dug its roots into world’s collective psyche. Although Cornish (who is also a credited writer on the first Ant-Man film) is vague about what these prevailing winds of negativity are, it seems fairly clear that movements like Brexit, nationalism and even the uglier sides of present-day America are all contributing factors in allowing this darkness to take root. I love the idea that this kid who’s barely a teenager is put forth as the new wielder of Excalibur because the rest of the world can’t keep it’s shit together.
The kid in question is Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), who is not exactly the hero type. He lives with his protective single mother (Denise Gough) and believes that his absent father has left him clues that not only confirm that he is the only one worthy of drawling Excalibur from a stone at a construction site near his home, but also guide him on an adventure to pull together a small band of warrior/knights to defeat Morgana. Not surprisingly, one of the film’s more interesting characters is Merlin, who arrives at Alex’s school disguised as a teenager (played by Angus Imrie), but occasionally reverts to this true, older form (Patrick Stewart wearing a Led Zeppelin t-shirt).
At school, Alex and his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) are bullied by a pair of older kids, Kate and Lance (Rhianna Dorris and Tom Taylor), and in a truly impressive bit of diplomacy, when Alex is assembling a rough-around-the-edges version of the knights of the round table, he recruits them to fight by his side. They are reluctant and not entirely trustworthy, but the move pays off perfectly by the end of the film.
The Kid Who Would Be King doesn’t skimp on impressive special effects or mild scares (Morgana manages to raise the skeletal corpses of long-dead knights to build her army). The kids are given real swords to fight with and are put in mortal danger pretty much for the entirely of the movie, so if you don’t want to see youngsters in peril, you probably shouldn’t see this film. But for those of us who embrace placing kids in harm’s way (in movies, that is), this work should thrill you to no end. Serkis is especially good at walking that line between being scared out of his wits and summoning up just enough courage to make it through his next challenge, even if that challenge involves discovering that his father wasn’t everything he’d hoped he would be.
Ultimately, the film works because Cornish cares a great deal about characters and the dilemmas he places them in. He treats action and fantasy seriously, and refuses to talk down to his audience in order to make his story more accessible. To the point where it feels a touch too long, The Kid Who Would Be King is packed with history, politics, family drama, and the kind of depth you may not expect from a film with kids in the leads. With all of that being true, both kids and adults will appreciate and admire the movie; it’s an unapologetic blast.
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