At The Movies - The Film That Would Be King
By Jordan Bosch
There’s been a long history of Arthurian legend being adapted for kids. Not surprising as it’s a myth that lends itself incredibly well to imagination and adventure.
T.H. White’s The Once and Future King is probably the most renowned, having been itself adapted into Disney’s The Sword in the Stone.
Other iterations targeted at young audiences have ranged from the shamelessly derivative Quest for Camelot to the clever and imaginative T.V. series Merlin. The Kid Who Would Be King isn’t quite like any of these. While it is one of several variants to transpose the Arthurian cast into a modern setting, and even to re-imagine them as youths, it does so with its own charm and heart that reasonably sets it apart.
Alex Elliott (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is a twelve year old boy who’s often bullied at school. While evading a couple tormentors on a construction sight he happens upon a sword in a stone. Learning from an eccentric teenage Merlin (Angus Imrie) that it is in fact Excalibur and has awakened Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) who is raising an army to take over Britain, Alex embarks on a quest with his three “knights” to destroy her and save the kingdom.
This plot sounds pretty banal and simple, but the movie is written and directed by Joe Cornish, regular collaborator and co-writer of Edgar Wright, and director of the great cult horror film Attack the Block (which among other things introduced the world to John Boyega). And like that movie it takes itself seriously, but with a strong sense of self-awareness. It understands the triteness of its premise, has fun with it in metatextual ways, yet also plays it with sincerity, and it’s just balanced enough to work without offsetting the tone.
A part of the success here can also be attributed to the young cast, who while not being great child actors, are as enamoured with the adventure and having as much fun as Cornish that it hardly matters (same applies to the generally poor script).
Louis Ashbourne Serkis, the son of Andy, makes for a generally likeable lead, around whom Dean Chaumoo (as Bedders), Tom Taylor (as Lance), and Rhianna Doris (as Kaye) stand in suitable contrast and relief. They have nice chemistry, making the most of characters who conceptually are fairly flat.
The adult cast is limited to a sombre Denise Gough as Alex’s mother, a welcome Genevieve O’Reilly as his aunt, and a scenery-chewing Rebecca Ferguson as the villainous Morgana.
Patrick Stewart appears at intervals as the elder Merlin to be the wise and wizened teacher of the young protagonists and to give the film just a little bit of gravitas.
But Angus Imrie, the son of Celia, as the young Merlin, is perhaps the biggest surprise of the film. The chief comic relief character, the trailer would indicate he’d get annoying very quickly. However Imrie has such good comic timing and a delightful theatricality to every delivery, his energy sustains you through the movie. And while the humour in general is very hit or miss, with him it almost always hits.
One of the most interesting aspects of the movie is that it’s as much a mirror of Arthurian lore as a tribute -the most obvious and acknowledged facet of this being the characters’ names.
In consciously taking up roles of legendary heroes, they wind up paralleling the characteristics and actions of those heroes, such as in Bedders’ loyalty and Lance’s jealousy. There are familiar motifs and trials directly adapted, and even an anticlimax in service of this function.
This adds to the fantastical nature of the story, which in addition to being a neat mix of Lord of the Rings with The Sarah Jane Adventures, in moments along the journey adamantly echoes the likes of The Neverending Story and Song of the Sea.
Notably standing out then is the films’ inescapable and far-from-mythical reality, which rears its head to administer an essential theme at the culmination of Alex’s arc to find his father. It’s one that was recently emphasized magnificently in The Last Jedi and here maintains a portion of that weight.
All that being said, the film does carry on too long and by the last act some motions get tiresome and lazy, even by this movies’ standards; such as Merlin’s magical clapping hypnotic device being used too often to fast-track developments or overcome obstacles. There’s at least one completely pointless fake-out detour during the climax, and the resolution itself is somehow both underwhelming and alarmingly brutal.
In many ways this film reminds me of A Dog’s Way Home. It’s just as silly, just as cliché-ridden, and admittedly in moments, just as poorly performed; but while that film was nothing but cynicism and manipulation so poorly hidden it entertained for all the wrong reasons, The Kid Who Would Be King has such an earnestness to it that this stuff comes off unabashedly charming. It’s got a level of dedication you can’t help but love, and this helps it pull off a number of otherwise difficult story, character, and emotional beats.
As a reinvention and homage of the King Arthur folklore, it’s a perfectly decent flick, the kind a kid like me would have been really into. Kids like me are still around -and they’re who this movie is made for.