The Kid Who Would Be King
Written and directed by: Joe Cornish
Starring: Louis Ashbourne Serkis and Patrick Stewart
Classification: PG; 132 minutes
For the past eight years, British writer-director Joe Cornish has been in a holding pattern. His brilliant 2011 debut, Attack the Block, which staged an alien invasion at a low-income Brixton housing project, launched the careers of Jodie Whittaker (our first female Doctor Who) and Star Wars’ John Boyega. Full of critical acclaim, Cornish turned down projects other hungry directors would kill for, including A Good Day to Die Hard, Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and J.J. Abrams' edition of Star Trek 3, while co-writing the notoriously rejected screenplay to Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man with his mentor Edgar Wright. What was he biding his time for?
Now 50, Cornish is about to release his second feature film. What is he, a female director? Safely playing in his comfort zone within a much bigger sandbox, this highly anticipated follow-up bears a resemblance to Attack the Block. The Kid Who Would Be King is a studio action-adventure movie about a diverse group of unlikely British schoolkids tasked with saving the world. It’s another clever English genre send-up, situating the legend of King Arthur in post-Brexit Britain. There are times when one must simply quote Weird Al: The Kid Who Would Be King gets medieval on our heinies.
Though it may clock at a cool 132 minutes (pacing and a lacklustre villain are the film’s biggest flaws), viewers will be entranced by Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy Serkis. He’s one of the greatest child actors to grace the screen in some time, whose golden lion-hearted essence shines through even when facing indecision and doubt. If perfect casting is looking for the one actor who can pull the sword from the stone, Cornish has found the Webster’s definition of a hero.
As Alex, Serkis’ commitment to the role immediately invests us in his titular journey from a bullied schoolkid to the heir to King Arthur’s throne. But first, he needs to make it through a day unscathed, constantly looking over his shoulder to make sure that he and his dopey best friend Bedders (lovable Dean Chaumoo) aren’t about to be pummelled by their tormentors Kaye (Rhianna Dorris) and Lance (Tom Taylor).
As is the requisite for every children’s adventure movie, Alex comes with a tragic past. He’s being raised by a single mum, and all he has to remember the father who abandoned him by is a dog-eared copy of the legend of King Arthur. Meanwhile, the world around him becomes dark and despairing. An animated opening credits sequence informs us that since King Arthur’s death, people have become “divided, fearful, leaderless.” Post-Brexit Britain seems like the perfect time for King Arthur’s evil half sister Morgana (a wasted Rebecca Ferguson, who spends the movie tied to a tree, plotting) to seize world domination.
One day, Alex finds a sword trapped in a stone at a construction site. As goes the legend, he retrieves it and soon, a zany wizard named Merlin (Angus Imrie plays his teenage form with unbridled enthusiasm, Patrick Stewart plays his aged form waiting for his paycheque) shows up at school to warn him that he must stop Morgana, who is “greed and entitlement in essence.” (BREXIT! TRUMP!) While the 12-year-old Alex questions Merlin’s insane proposition, he recruits Bedders and their bullies on a kingly quest to find his father, all leading to a climactic battle in which their entire school wages war with Morgana’s battalion of evil CGI skeletons on horses. (You have to crush them by brute force; the students hurl gymnastics equipment at them.)
The Kid Who Would Be King is a film about what it means to be a hero when the world seems more rotten and despairing than ever. Alex says “a land is only as good as its leaders,” but at a time when presidents brag about serving Burger King to football players in a misspelled tweet and influencers foster online cesspools full of hatred and division, something needs to change. The story of King Arthur, as cleverly and intuitively retold by Cornish, illustrates how one can make their enemies their allies by fighting for a common good. As our valiant preteen knights pledge their chivalry, they swear to always tell the truth and honour their friends and families, even when it risks hurting those they love. Heroism comes with being true to yourself, a difficult task when looking to amass as many followers as possible.
With the film, Cornish has proven his own valour as a filmmaker. He’s got a great hero on a worthy quest, but his children’s movie also has dignity, a rare quality. While Morgana remains listless to her death, Cornish demonstrates a keen eye for heart-stopping action sequences that trade in the blessings of shot construction and editing. Like his mentor Wright, he also loves to find something surprising and humorous within a frame. If The Kid Who Would Be King’s charm can be summed up in a single shot, it’s when Alex sits Bedders, Lance, and Kaye down to convince them of their destiny as his Knights of the Round Table. He’s rapt with enthusiasm, even noticing their names bear similarity to the original members of King Arthur’s court – why, they’re even sitting a table right now! “It’s not round,” remarks one bully. Alex and his friend pull up the leaves at the sides of the table, turning a square into a circle, thus silencing his haters forever.
If Cornish can revamp the legend of King Arthur this cleverly, perhaps he’s ready for his franchise after all.
The Kid Who Would Be King opens Jan. 25