REVIEW – ‘The Kid Who Would Be King’

The legend of King Arthur and his infamous sword in the stone has been portrayed on the big screen many, many, many, many times. The most recent effort, Guy Ritchie’s 2017 mega-flop King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, was a gargantuan and unmitigated disaster. Wisely flipping the fable right on its head in The Kid Who Would Be King, writer/director Joe Cornish reboots the well-worn tale with a 21st-century setting and a fresh narrative injected with socially aware themes cleverly hidden amongst good old fashioned family fun.

With the sensibilities of classic 80s films like The Goonies and E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial and a dash of Lord of the Rings style fantasy adventure, there’s an infectious old school charm to this film that’s hard to resist. Tapping into the current cataclysmic state of the world, Cornish captures the bleak outlook facing the young generation these days but provides an empowering message of hope within a film that may be the most inspiring thing a youngster could see this year.

Beginning with an impressive “hand-drawn” animated prologue that showcases the origins of the King Arthur tale, we learn the valiant King and his brave Knights of the Round Table once vanquished Arthur’s wicked half-sister, Morgana (a deliciously sinister Rebecca Ferguson) to the underworld, after she attempted to take over the world. Literally recoiling into the soil, Morgana vows to one day return for her vengeance when hearts are hollow and the world is divided and leaderless. Uh oh. Does that sound a little too familiar?

Jumping forward to modern-day London, we glimpse a wall of newspapers which bluntly display headlines like “Doom,” “Gloom,” and “A Country Divided.” Somewhere, Morgana is smiling. As a news anchor relays the rising dread across the land, we meet our young protagonist Alex Elliot (a charming Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of motion-capture legend Andy), a 12-year-old struggling through life at Dungate Academy where both he and his best friend Bedders (an endearing Dean Chaumoo) are continually bullied by two older students, Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris).

After his two tormentors chase Alex into an abandoned construction site, he stumbles upon an ancient medieval sword, firmly embedded in a concrete slab, which he naturally attempts to retrieve. To his surprise, the sword slides right out. Feeling entirely sceptical this truly could be the legendary Excalibur from the tale of King Arthur his now-absent father once read to him, Alex stashes the sword in his bedroom, despite the protestations from fantasy-obsessed Bedders that it’s the real thing.

Meanwhile, deep beneath the earth, Morgana is beginning to awaken, as her moment to reemerge beckons. Both Morgan’s imminent return and the discovery of Excalibur signal ancient sorcerer Merlin (a scene-stealing Angus Imrie) to enter present-day through a mystical porthole, located within Stonehenge, in a scene reminiscent of The Terminator. Taking the form of a teenager (his occasional elderly form is played by Patrick Stewart) named “Mertin,” in the hopes of assimilating into Dungate Academy, Merlin puts all of Alex’s doubts to bed in an instant with a deft display of magic.

But Merlin arrives bearing bad news; in four days time, a solar eclipse will bathe the Earth in darkness, allowing Morgana the opportunity to rise up and seize control of the world, aided by her army of flaming zombie skeletons and her ability to transform into a monstrous dragon. Now that the sword has seemingly chosen the reluctant Alex as its new owner, he must find the strength and courage to become a daring leader and create an army capable of defeating Morgana.

The perils of youth have been a common theme in films since the dawn of cinema, but there’s something wildly different about the issues facing those unfortunate enough to be entering a world that’s genuinely out of control. As with most generations, the children of today don’t feel important or their voice is one rarely heard. In The Kid Who Would Be King, Alex is even crushingly informed the world is not going to change, rather he needs to change to fit the world. Cornish taps into the gloom and hopelessness of childhood but subverts the notion anything has to remain a certain way, simply because it always has been.

By placing young children at the forefront of his narrative, Cornish captures the hidden strength laying dormant within a 12-year-old that merely needs a spark to ignite a roaring fire. But the strongest message comes from the idea that children are strongest when they join together, rather than remain divided and segregated by schoolyard cliques. In the Sword in the Stone fable, the noble King turned his enemies into allies to help defeat Morgana, and Alex must now conquer this same task with his current antagonisers. At a time when nations are so sharply divided (particularly post-Brexit in the UK and post-Trump in the US), it’s a timely reminder of the power of community.

Evil feeds off division. It’s precisely how power-hungry dictators seize power, and it’s hard not to see the parallel Cornish is portraying by having his villain’s chance to rise from the dead only come to fruition at the dawn of a leaderless, divided planet. It makes this film slyly relevant and timely without ever feeling too insufferably preachy or mercifully sanctimonious. Young viewers likely won’t even see these narrative connections, but Cornish understands his junior audience members are the future and clearly hopes to embolden them with the idea they truly can change the world, if they band together and believe in themselves.

As a terrific young leading star, Serkis proves to be a real find, showcasing how the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, with wide eyes as evocative as his father’s and an endearing quality that’s a joy to watch. Serkis encapsulates the crippling self-doubt and complicated emotions of one’s pre-teen years in a performance that offers great promise at what’s to come next. Chaumoo is infectiously delightful as the loyal sidekick with a goofy quality that could make him the UK’s answer to Julian Dennison. As our nasty villain, Ferguson rightfully chews the scenery, in a wicked, Gollum-like turn that showcases her broad range and knack for playing it bad. Hollywood would be right to consider her for this kind of role in the future.

But the real scene-stealer is oddball Imrie, who is a genuine delight as the madcap magician Merlin. With a host of overexaggerated expressions and his gangly, awkward frame, Imrie proves to be a master of physical comedy, particularly with a flurry of wild clicks and hand movements when Merlin crafts some magic. Cornish has crafted his film with a wonderfully diverse cast that speaks volumes against Hollywood’s outdated obsession with all-white casts featuring magazine perfect children. This young cast looks and sounds exactly how you’d expect a class of pre-teens to appear in 2019, and that has to be instantly endearing to its intended audience.

Despite a relatively modest budget, The Kid Who Would Be King looks as good as (if not better than) most Hollywood blockbusters. With marvelous special effects work, particularly on Morgana and her twisted army of the undead, and gorgeous cinematography from Bill Pope, this is a surprisingly spectacular looking piece of cinema. Throw in an electronic synthe score from Electric Wave Bureau and some sprawling location shoots atop the British highlands, and it’s really quite remarkable how much effort has gone into ensuring this production is well above average for the children’s film genre.

As important as its narrative themes may be, thankfully, The Kid Who Would Be King never feels weighed down by Cornish’s socially-conscious messages. This is inherently a children’s fantasy film, after all. Instead, he cleverly disguises his intentions within some terrific action set pieces, a hefty dose of humour, and a charming adventure story that feels entirely fresh and lively. After numerous attempts at getting the King Arthur tale just right, Cornish has finally cracked the code on how to do this classic story justice by deftly twisting it just enough to offer something new.

As Merlin wisely states, “a land is only as strong as its leaders,” and one can only hope a young future leader is inspired by this piece of cinema. Maybe even a few adults will learn a thing or two as well.

Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Dean Chaumoo, Angus Imrie, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, Patrick Stewart, Rebecca Ferguson, Denise Gough
Director: Joe Cornish
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nira Park
Screenplay: Joe Cornish
Cinematography: Bill Pope
Music: Electric Wave Bureau

Editors: Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss
Running Time: 120 minutes
Release Date: 17th January 2019 (Australia)