The Kid Who Would Be King
2018, PG, 132 min. Directed by Joe Cornish. Starring Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Dean Chaumoo, Angus Imrie, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Jan. 25, 2019
Fans have been waiting for a new Joe Cornish film since the director made his feature debut with 2011’s Attack the Block. And yet, despite being rumored for several high-profile fantasy projects over the past decade, Cornish has remained relatively quiet as a filmmaker. All of that changes with The Kid Who Would Be King, Cornish’s modern update of the fabled King Arthur storyline.
Alex (Serkis, and yes, it's that family of Serkis) is a normal teenager with normal teenager problems. He sleeps too late, keeps to himself a bit too much, and deals with a normal assortment of disapproving teachers and bullies. But when Alex accidentally pulls the mystical sword Excalibur from a local construction site, he is visited by the wizard Merlin (young, Imrie, and old, Stewart) and warned of a great danger: Evil sorceress Morgana (Ferguson) is returning to Earth to wipe out humanity once and for all. Now, Alex has four days to unpack the secrets of Excalibur, raise an army, and wage a war against Morgana’s army of undead warriors, all without getting a wedgie from his newly appointed Knights of the Round Table.
You can say this about Cornish: He isn’t particularly subtle when it comes to getting his message across. The Kid Who Would Be King is unapologetically political, using the Arthurian mythos to encourage a new generation of civic-minded adults. The film’s earliest moments are littered with references to a broken world; newspaper headlines scream threats of war and environmental disaster, while BBC broadcasts in the background make note of the world’s general downward spiral. It’s also something that the forces of good and evil are prone to harp on. In one of her more impassioned speeches, Morgana argues that humanity is not worth rescuing because it has ruined the lands and turned against each other, and she’s … well, she’s not entirely wrong.
In fact, the uselessness of adults is baked directly into the film’s DNA. One of Cornish’s more clever plot devices is the absence of humans while Morgana’s forces invade the world; only Alex and other knighted students can fight the shambling horde as everyone else disappears from this realm until the evil has been defeated. This leads to a climax where a group of plucky students fight off the literal ghosts of their ancestors to save the world for absent adults. It's not exactly difficult to parse out Cornish’s meaning, but there’s something undeniably fun about a movie that desperately wants to empower preteens to make a difference.
For those less interested in politics and more interested in family-friendly smashy-smashy, there’s still plenty of colorful fight sequences on display for the matinee crowd. The film may be in desperate need of a trim and features one too many endings – honestly, what contemporary fantasy epic these days doesn’t – but if you’re a parent wondering what this generation’s answer to the memorable PG fantasy films of your childhood will be, The Kid Who Would Be King makes a pretty strong case. A bit of action, a bit of humor, and a whole bunch of teachable moments.