In 2011, Joe Cornish released his debut film, Attack the Block, and it became an instant classic. The horror/sci-fi mashup is full of great characters, clever twists, and infinitely quotable dialogue. It’s been almost a decade since he last stepped behind the camera, and Cornish’s fans are thirsty for another taste of his movie magic. At a glance, his new film, The Kid Who Would Be King gives his audience more of what they want: more charming young heroes, more snappy dialogue, and more of London under siege.
Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is an average kid from an average London neighbourhood – it’s essential to the story that we realize he’s average. He lives with his single mom and spends all his time with his geeky best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo). Alex is a mild-mannered kid but loses his cool and scraps with his school’s two meanest bullies, Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris) after they humiliate Bedders. Seeking revenge, Lance and Kaye chase Alex into a construction site where he discovers a sword buried in the rubble. As fate would have it, that sword is King Arthur’s legendary weapon, Excalibur.
When Alex wields Excalibur, he draws the ire of the witch Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), Arthur’s arch-enemy and half-sister. She has been trapped beneath the earth for centuries, and now she’s regaining her strength and preparing to strike. She will return during the next lunar eclipse, and it’s up to Alex to stop her before that happens. Aided by the wizard Merlin (Angus Imrie), Alex, Bedders, Lance, and Kaye become today’s knights of the round table. And together they fight to stop Morgana’s ascension before she turns the world into her own private hellscape.
Arthurian legends have been told and retold for centuries. We’ve seen this tale folded into superhero comics, recreated in video games, and reimagined through sci-fi. Good luck finding an angle that hasn’t been done. Cornish doesn’t even try. Instead, he plants the adventure in 2019 and lets our modern-day anxieties overlap with the story’s themes. This picture isn’t subtle about what it has to say, either. Right from the jump, the film bombards viewers with news headlines discussing Brexit (without saying Brexit) and the rise of strongmen leaders around the globe. Cornish takes his audience to dark places before his heroes can rise and embrace the light.
Much like last year’s fantastic Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s message that we can all be Spider-Man, this move encourages us all to be knights of the round table. The Kid Who Would Be King says we can all fight to make the world a better place, even if through small gestures.
Cornish set a high bar with Attack the Block, and it’s tough not to watch his sophomore film hoping for more of the same. The Kid Who Would Be King doesn’t create cinema’s most memorable characters, but you do enjoy every minute you spend with these crazy kids. Whereas Attack the Block featured a group of endearing ruffians, these kids are a bit younger and far more earnest. They’re sweet but not cloying, a balance that many kid’s movies can’t pull off.
Chaumoo stands out as the lovable geek Bedders. Wide-eyed and ready for adventure, Bedders likens the boys’ quest to Sam and Frodo’s epic journey. Alex doesn’t have Bedders’ big personality. Instead of a character quirk, he is defined by his relationships to the people he loves. Alex is thoughtful, tough and has a strong moral compass; the type of kid who inspires those around him to be better. Ferguson’s Morgana is as bland as central villains get. There’s nothing to her performance besides wreathing around like a reptile and hissing like a leaking gas pipe. Nobody in the cast will take home any awards for their work here. But this is a case of the whole ensemble’s chemistry making the movie much better than the sum of its parts.
The film heavily relies on generic CGI monsters who fall just short of scary, mostly. Morgana, a half-dragon, does at times get gruesome. Don’t be shocked if she gives younger kids nightmares. Her army of flaming skeleton knights? Not so much. They resemble a knock-off brand Ghost Rider and go up in sparks and flames every time a kid takes one down. They’re the sort of forgettable horde of villains that waft from your memory like puffs of smoke as soon as you leave the theatre.
12-year-old me would have fallen in love with The Kid Who Would Be King, and adult me would happily sit through it a second time. The movie offers all the whimsy, adventure, and laughs you could ask for and sprinkles in a dash of magic. But that magic doesn’t have anything to do with wizards, secret portals, and enchanted swords. I’m talking about a different kind: movie magic. By wielding the power of the silver screen, Cornish inspires a younger generation to be better than us grown-ups. And at least for a couple of hours, the movie and its message made my cynicism disappear. I hope it doesn’t take another eight years before Cornish delivers his encore.
- Release Date: 1/25/2019