British director Joe Cornish serves up an entertaining family-friendly romp with his movie, “The Kid Who Would Be King.”
The film, which follows Cornish’s 2011 cult classic, “Attack the Block,” is a charming retelling of the legend of Excalibur that will be enjoyed by its target preteen audience. At the same time, “The Kid Who Would Be King” reminds the accompanying adult audience of some of the moral codes that we often forget but are so needed. As the voice-over in the film so succinctly states, “The world is going to hell, and authoritarianism is on the rise.”
In the movie, evil sorceress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) is all set to enslave humanity. She has been trapped under the earth for centuries by her half-brother, King Arthur, waiting for a time when chaos is on the rise. The movie takes place at precisely such a moment.
In contrast, Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is an average 12-year-old — quite unremarkable and a little clumsy. His most endearing quality is his undying loyalty to his best friend, Bedders (Dean Chaumoo). On behalf of Bedders, Alex stands up to school bullies Kaye (Rhianna Dorris) and Lance (Tom Taylor) who chase Alex into a construction site. Here, in a scene reminiscent of Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone,” the most unlikely of kids pulls the legendary sword, Excalibur, from a stone. Serkis manages to pull off the role of a nobody turned reluctant leader convincingly, for the most part.
No Arthurian story is complete without the wizard Merlin. Sure enough, a teenage Merlin (Angus Imrie) emerges from Stonehenge and notifies Alex that since he has pulled out Excalibur, he must now raise an army of knights to combat the undead soldiers of Morgana.
Some of the film’s strongest moments are those with a moral message — it is easier to incorporate moral messages in a kids’ film as issues as compared to the moral grey of the adult world. In a Harry Potter-esque fashion, leadership is shown to be more than just about bloodline. We are reminded that humility is equally important in a leader, as exemplified by the idea of the round table — when his friends kneel in front of him, Alex is embarrassed.
The first half of the movie is really the best part, when the plot is still unfolding. The highlight is indubitably Imrie’s acting as young Merlin. The loopy wizard keeps shapeshifting between his teen self, his adult self (Sir Patrick Stewart) and an owl, by sneezing at the oddest of times. Young Merlin especially adds to the humor and is the most engaging character in the film. In one scene, for example, Merlin needs some weird medieval beetle powder for strength and divulges that he’s found it in the modern fried chicken, much to the other children’s disgust. He sends the kids off to fight against an enchanted grove of trees to train for combat, while he goes off to search for his food. We also find out that Excalibur can be disposed of or retrieved from any water source in England — including a bathtub.
The latter half of the movie is filled with the more predictable CGI fights. Clearly, this is a kids’ movie, with a school of freshly knighted preteens ready to save the world by taking on undead soldiers riding on flaming horses.
On their journey, Alex and the other students learn some valuable life lessons — turn your enemies into allies, there is strength in unity, follow an honor code, and be pure of heart. Such actions will surely result in a better society. These heartfelt messages are repeated over and over in the movie. By extension, Cornish’s clear message for both the kids and the adults in the audience is that the kids of today will grow up to be the adult leaders of tomorrow and can enable change for the better.