The Kid Who Would Be King gives an urban spin on the well-known legend of Arthur. Encouraged by the British director, Joe Cornish, and being familiar with the last film he did, Attack the Block, I was very game to see the latest re-telling of Arthur. While I wasn’t wholly unimpressed, I did find some places where the film struggled a bit.
The Kid Who Would Be King opens with regular, average schoolboy Alex Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Andy Serkis’ son) rushing off to school with the help of his mum, Mary (Denise Gough, Yennefer). He’s actually rushing because he wants to save his best friend Bedders (newcomer Dean Chaumoo) from the bullies who torment them, bullies named Lance and Kaye.
Don’t roll your eyes yet. Lance and Kaye, who appear to be older (or at least, taller?) students, torment Alex and Bedders right into an abandoned construction site one evening, where Alex pulls a sword out of an encrypted stone and they begin to do battle with demons come from hell, created by Morgana LeFay (Rebecca Ferguson, Life, Mission Impossible: Fallout).
Once Alex knows that he is a leader, and is meant to represent King Arthur, he turns his bullies into friends, and begins to look at them as the Knights of the Round Table. (Okay, now you can roll your eyes, but only a little bit, because these kids are pretty cute.) Soon after, a new student shows up at their school in a not-very-good student disguise.
This awkward student’s name is Martin, and we soon learn a couple of things: The fate of the world rests upon the shoulders of Alex and his frenemies. And the student’s real identity is actually Merlin, the great wizard
Being the sort of filthy casual to the Arthurian legend who actually enjoyed Sam Neill’s Merlin back in the day, I wasn’t sure what to make of this kid playing Merlin. Turns out, though, that he’s actually quite animated and engaging to watch. Sir Patrick Stewart pops in from time to time as an older version of Merlin. As only a knighted actor like Stewart can, to lend some agency to a prestigious role like Merlin. The rest of the time, he shares the role with this energetic youngster whose wizardly ‘moves’ are at turns both refreshing and distracting. Merlin is clearly meant to be comic relief, while Serkis as Alex Elliot is meant to be the sentimental lead.
At the beginning, before the actors dive into their characters, the audience might feel as though those young British actors are saying their lines at each other. But once you dust off the Arthurian Legend and familiarize yourself with it, it all starts to make sense. If you don’t start looking for a lady named Guenievere (there isn’t one, in this retelling) or start thinking that an anagram of Tintagel Castle is basically “Tit Angel” (it is, and now you can never unthink that) you’ll be good to go.
Beautiful landscapes characterize the story of The Kid Who Would Be King, bringing the Arthurian myth to life in, as British comedian Eddie Izzard would say, in “Europe, where the history comes from”. These are real spots in Britain, no greenscreen or soundstages required, just the stunning coasts of England. The audience can actually believe that the sets are in the Arthurian medieval spots of yore, with names like Tintagel (rhymes with “bagel”) Castle and Glastonbury Tor being tossed around. A good anchor for the story is the Arthurian kids’ book that Alex believes was gifted to him and signed by his dad, proof that these lads and lass are not just making it up as they go along.
This is where The Kid Who Would Be King suffers in fact, in a couple of respects. When it’s not muffled by overdone and very obvious CGI Morgana LeFay and isn’t trying to stuff overt sentimentality down our throats, The Kid Who Would Be King works. The kids aren’t Oscar-winning actors by any means, but they’re cute enough all in their armour with their swords and siege weapons. I got a bit of a ‘Harry Potter’ vibe from it all, with the kids in their school jumpers hanging about Glastonbury Tor and Stonehenge. And great wizards turning into owls.
At the end of the day, The Kid Who Would Be King is a fun movie, but it’s not a great one. While I like British humor, sometimes it could wear thin. With the advantage of amazing, real English sets, the addition of weird, goofy CGI feels very, very off. And for all that we know the story of Excalibur and King Arthur. While the movie doesn’t try to do anything different, and hits many familiar story beats, it also shies away from the familiar “My dad was a Knight at Arthur’s Round Table!” idea, which is to it’s credit.
For all that I really enjoyed Attack the Block, another work by director Joe Cornish from eight years ago, I was expecting a bit of a different movie from the film The Kid Who Would Be King. I’m not sure if it’s because I was expecting a more grown-up movie. The movie is probably perfect for the age level it’s targeted toward. It’s a pleasant cheering-on-the-underdog film that the whole family will love. Or, it may have been because Attack the Block did such a fantastic job with its characters, that The Kid Who Would Be King didn’t really live up to that.
Of course, there is the matter of whether or not they will go the dreaded Hollywood route and make sequels upon sequels. The Kid Who Would Be King…setting up for a whole series of films, or just content with one?