It’s quite amazing to know that there are many films out there that have been inspired by the story of the Arthurian legend. On the top end of the scale, we have the Disney flick The Sword of the Stone, the John Boorman cult classic Excalibur and of course the comedic parody Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
On the middling end of the scale, we have the gritty yet dull Antoine Fuqua film King Arthur and the Jerry Zucker film First Knight (with a Scottish King Arthur played by Sean Connery). Then there’s the low end of the scale, where we have stinkers like Guy Ritchie‘s misguided epic King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and the perplexing Transformers: The Last Knight, which tries to bolt together the Transformers “story” with the Arthurian legend, with predictably crummy results.
Now, we have a children’s film The Kid Who Would Be King, which is only based on the Arthurian legend but it is also the long-awaited sophomore effort from director Joe Cornish, whose last film was the critically acclaimed sci-fi creature feature, Attack the Block. Will Cornish bring the mix of fun and character to the film, while also providing a spit-shine to the Arthurian story?
The film revolves around Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), a quiet kid thinks he’s just another nobody, who is friends with Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), a meek kid who is constantly bullied by Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris).
One night, Alex stumbles in a construction site and finds the mythical sword in the stone, Excalibur. Since it is foretold that evil forces are planning to take over the world, he must unite his friends and enemies into a band of knights and, together with the legendary wizard Merlin (Angus Imrie and Sir Patrick Stewart), take on the wicked enchantress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson). With the future at stake, Alex must become the great leader he never dreamed he could be.
After a long 8-year wait since the release of Attack the Block, it is with great relief to say that The Kid Who Would Be King is a great sophomore effort from director Joe Cornish. While it may lack the sharpness in how social commentary informs the storytelling (due to the change in demographic, rather than the fault of the film itself), the film does retain the focus on character and the sense of old-fashioned fun that made Cornish’s prior film Attack the Block such a hit with critics and audiences.
The main reason why The Kid Who Would Be King succeeds is how much the story is informed by the characterizations. All the action scenes occur organically to the story, rather than being bolted on just to cater to the audience and they all provide fun, thrills and most importantly, advance the character arcs to a satisfying degree.
Whether the action scenes involve the four lead characters unwillingly working together or confronting their own demons as well as the ones out in the world, Cornish handles the story and action with remarkable ease, with great support from talented cinematographer Bill Pope (who lenses the film with brimming colours, lending a sense of dynamism) and editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss (who keep the film surprisingly tempered, but never lagging) and especially the electronic score by Electric Wave Bureau, which lends a energetic/majestic feel to the proceedings.
As opposed to action climaxes in blockbusters where the majority of the budget is spent, even the climactic battle in The Kid Who Would Be King is executed in a refreshingly small-scale, intimate manner, with more reliance on practicality, teamwork and to sound like a parrot repeating the same term, character. Also on the contrary to Hollywood blockbusters (which confound the audience with LOUD ACTION SCENES then quite dramatic scenes followed by rinsing and repeating), Cornish takes his time with the development of the story, much like the cinematic stories of old, where the film gradually becomes more thrilling, more poignant and especially more rousing in the final act.
The same goes for the comedy, which goes from childlike (but never childish) to topical and prescient (about the world we live today) to particularly witty humour that may include the best running joke about bodily fluids this reviewer has heard in a very long time. And once again, it all stems from character, rather than jokes involving pop-culture references, and they all earn laughs.
Even the prescient themes (like friendship, loyalty, honour, trust) and moments of social commentary are given substantial weight ie. the world building as well as the motivation of the main villain, Morgana. Her potential rise from the bowels of the Earth is only possible because the world is divided (with implied references to Brexit, the world political climate etc.), and been made weaker and more fractured than ever, therefore being a ripe opportunity for her to take over the world. Best of all, the implicit implementation of the themes all add to the message of the film, which is a worthy one for people of all ages to know.
Then there’s the family drama involving the ever-growing estrangement between Alex and her mother (played fantastically by Denise Gough, a talented theatre actress last seen in 2018’s period drama Colette). Thanks to a missing father figure, a few narrative curveballs and the ways both Alex and his mother deal with the void, Cornish doesn’t back down nor sugarcoat the drama and portrays it honestly, truly earning the film’s most poignant moments as well as its place in the backbone of the story in order for Alex to succeed in his quest.
It also helps that the cast of young talent and veteran actors all hit their mark with their variable screentime. Louis Ashbourne Serkis makes for a surprisingly grounded and incredulous hero and just like his father (the acclaimed Andy Serkis), he emotes convincingly with just his eyes, making the most out the dramatic scenes, especially with co-star Denise Gough.
The other Knights of the Round Table, Dean Chaumoo (very amusing), Rhianna Doris (deftly conniving), and Tom Taylor (convincingly conflicted and rough) acquit themselves nicely as the supportive sidekick and converted bullies, especially with their individual arcs given to them. As the villain of the piece, Rebecca Ferguson makes the most out of her role, digging into the part with the right presence and especially the right voice that will scare the young audience.
But the biggest standout is Angus Imrie as the young version of Merlin. Primarily a theatre actor, Imrie brings a wonderful balance of knowledgeable conviction and pantomime goofiness and theatricality to the character that any type of exaggerated movement that he does comes off as hilarious. In fact Imrie is so good, when his character transforms to the appearance of Sir Patrick Stewart (always a pleasure and funnily enough, he also appeared in John Boorman‘s Excalibur), there’s a chance you might miss the presence of Imrie.
Overall, The Kid Who Would Be King is a great fantasy adventure film for the whole family with a fun rollicking sense of adventure that is both refreshingly intimate and old-fashioned, memorable characters, wonderful performances and an inspiring message that is both contemporary and inspiring. Please don’t take another 8 years to make another film Joe Cornish.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Kid Who Would Be King is in cinemas now.