Joe Cornish (director)
14 February 2019 (released)
15 February 2019
The legend of King Arthur would've once been known to every British schoolboy. Those who didn't pick it up in a patriotic history book would've seen Disney's Sword in the Stone or one of the many other film adaptations.
In recent years though films based on the Arthurian legend have been more likely to sink like a stone at the box office than draw a sword from it - like Guy Ritchie's 2017 big-budget King Arthur extravaganza, which struggled to make an impression on audiences.
Comedian-turned-filmmaker Joe Cornish hopes to change that - by setting his new take, The Kid Who Would Be King, in the present day and focussing the story on a new hero, Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), a geeky 12-year-old London schoolboy living with his single mum.
Thoroughly unexceptional, except when defending his mate Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) from his school's resident bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), Alex's life takes an extraordinary turn when he's chased on to a building site and stumbles across an impressive-looking sword stuck in a stone - which he then draws exactly like the legend.
Initially, Alex treats his new find as a plaything that allows him to recreate the stories in a King Arthur book gifted to him long ago by his absent father. This Excalibur is very real though and is coveted by the evil sorceress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), who is ready to return to enslave a "divided" Britain after spending centuries trapped underground.
After being threatened by Morgana's root-like tendrils, which creep through the night in search of Excalibur, and undead knights, who seem indomitable until they come up against a family hatchback, Alex realises he must emulate the King Arthur of old and embark on a quest to save Britain. In this he's inevitably joined by Merlin, who reappears conspicuously in the guise of quirky teen 'Mertin' (Angus Imrie, later Patrick Stewart), plus his newly minted knights; Bedders, and the sceptical Lance and Kaye, who he selects to sit around his round kitchen table as the strongest people he knows.
Only those 'knighted' by Alex can see and fight Morgana's undead minions - an ingenious plot device that enables the characters to engage in full-scale fantasy sequences in south London without alarming the locals.
The basic theme is similar to that of Cornish's acclaimed sci-fi debut Attack the Block - ordinary youngsters facing peril - and works almost as well. Cornish really understands late childhood in a way that few filmmakers do. He gets the conflicting desire to emerge into adulthood and yet keep the comfort of childish pursuits.
There are plenty of wry pop culture references and excellent jokes - with Merlin's love of fried chicken shops a particular highlight. Plus, one can hardly miss the Brexit undertones in having inspirational youths attempt to save their world and future from adults who've lost their way and unleashed a great evil.
The young cast performs admirably, with Ashbourne Serkis (son of The Lord of the Rings star Andy) predictably a natural, and Imrie (son of British actress Celia) delightfully quirky. Stewart, as an older version of Merlin, also brings star power and thoughtful eloquence to his few scenes. Ferguson, however, is underused as Morgana, conveying menace from afar but cloaked in CGI in her later climactic scenes.
However, one problem with the film is that it lacks a little edge. At a time when teens are used to special effects-laden extravaganzas that allude to more adult themes, The Kid Who Would Be King feels relatively tame. This is especially the case during its second act, when our heroes' quest takes them to Cornwall to find Alex's father and the truth of the Arthurian legend, which though emotionally resonant, sometimes feels like an under-powered detour rather than a thrilling journey of self-discovery.
It's charming in its own way - and in many ways feels like a throwback to a more innocent era of young adult fantasy blockbusters like The Goonies or Labyrinth - but may not resonate with a generation brought up on darker tales like The Hunger Games and the later Harry Potter films.