The Kid Who Would Be King | Joe Cornish | January 25, 2019
Eight years ago, director Joe Cornish came out of nowhere with the cult hit Attack The Block, launching John Boyega‘s career and making Cornish a director to watch. In a shocking twist, Cornish has been surprisingly quiet on the directing front since then, lending a hand on scripts for Ant-Man and The Adventures of Tintin, but otherwise leaving fans wondering when we would be getting to see more from him as a director.
Well, 2019 is here and Cornish is back with The Kid Who Would Be King, a fresh take on familiar Arthurian lore and legends mixed with modern themes and sensibilities to humorous effect in a more family-friendly film.
Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy Serkis) is seemingly an average kid, living at home with his mom (Denise Gough) and attending Dungate Academy with his friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo). He shows distinct acts of honor and bravery in standing up for what is right by coming to Bedders’ aid when he is being bullied by classmates Lance (The Dark Tower‘s Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), and after a night in detention, the bullies chase Alex to a construction site that just so happens to hold a concrete block with a sword, which Alex easily removes – only to realize later that it’s not just any old sword but King Arthur’s legendary sword Excalibur.
Doing so awakens the evil Morgana (Mission Impossible‘s Rebecca Ferguson) from her deep underworld slumber, ready to claim Excalibur as her own and take over all of the UK (if not the world) at the end of an impending solar eclipse in four days. It also heralds the return of a much younger version of Merlin (Angus Imrie) who desperately tries to impress the situation’s direness onto the young Alex and Bedders, hoping that they can put aside their differences with Lance and Kaye and to create a new round table alliance to defeat Morgana.
Cornish, who also penned the screenplay, doesn’t hide what’s on his mind, with overt themes and frustrations of the modern Brexit age, as shown in news media and mentioned by his characters. Even so, it’s an effective method for young children that is obviously just as timely for American children with our own similar frustrations. Cornish brings that similar unique blend of British humor and charm, which is a fine combination for the more familiar aspects of medieval and Arthurian lore that we have seen a dozen times before. It’s great to see him and cinematographer Bill Pope play with urban geography integrated with classic themes and ideas, while also utilizing the more expected magical landscapes that call to mind Lord Of The Rings.
What helps the film overcome the more trite and familiar aspects of this story is the genuine charm that Cornish and his young cast bring to the table. Louis Ashbourne Serkis is a capable leader, able to carry the film and act with a believable sense of pride and leadership. There’s also a winning turn from Dean Chaumoo, who reminds me a great deal of Julian Dennison (Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Deadpool 2), and solid work from both Tom Taylor and Rhianna Dorris as characters with redemptive arcs. Sadly, Rebecca Ferguson isn’t given much to do here in a rather simplistic and underwritten villainous role, but she seems to be having fun chewing the scenery. The undeniable scene-stealer here is Angus Imrie as Young Merlin, who brought an energy and vibrancy to the role that made each and every scene he is in that much better. Patrick Stewart has limited screentime as Older Merlin but brings enough of the expected mix of intensity and warmth that he could do in his sleep at this point. But it’s telling that I actually felt myself wanting to see more of Imrie whenever Stewart reemerges. This is no knock on Stewart, but rather a testament to how great Imrie’s performance is.
The Kid Who Would Be King feels strong during its first half when we get to see these kids discover the existence of this magical world and their role in the grand scheme of things. While the second half feels a bit more routine in its execution of the predictable action plot points, Cornish brings some Edgar Wright-like comedic sensibilities to keep it all fresh and fun for both children and viewers of all ages. It gives a generation a fresh-faced look at a familiar tale while also tackling some tough themes, including a particularly sobering moment when Merlin tells Morgana that it’s not right for the younger generation to have to wage the battles of the old, as the time is now to focus on them as they are the future. Some of these moments will go over the heads of most of the target audience, but not the fact that they can be the ones to make a difference and to stand up for what is right when the adults in the room have failed to do so.
While The Kid Who Would Be King isn’t exactly what fans of Cornish or Attack The Block expected or wanted, he’s made a charming little film here with a ton of heart and something to say that will hopefully pave the way for more creative endeavors and possibly launch the career of another soon-to-be-star. Serkis understandably is the focus here, but my money is on Angus Imrie as a possible breakout in the future as a result of his work here.