A film review by Craig J. Koban February 6, 2019

RANK: #25


2019, PG-13, 120 mins.


Louis Ashbourne Serkis as Alex  /  Tom Taylor as Lance  /  Angus Imrie as Young Merlin  /  Patrick Stewart as Merlin  /  Rebecca Ferguson as Morgana  Denise Gough as Mother  /  Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Mr. Kepler  /  Nick Mohammed as Mr. Boyle

Written and directed by Joe Cornish

It's crazy to consider that it's been nearly a decade since director Joe Cornish made a film, with his last one being his 2011 breakout cult sci-fi hit ATTACK THE BLOCK (which also helped launch the career of a pre-STAR WARS John Boyega).   

Cornish now returns to filmmaking duties with THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING, one of 2019's early and splendid surprises.  The film is sort of a wonderful hybrid work with a throwback vibe:  Imagine a mishmash of EXCALIBUR with MONSTER SQUAD and you'll kind of get the idea.  Plus, it joyously recalls the classic youth adventure films of yesteryear like THE GOONIES that contained a carefree and enjoyable spirit and a thankless lack of cynicism.  Even better, THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING is also an utterly charming and quite clever take on Arthurian legend, and for a film to take one of the most ageless, iconic, and thoroughly well told stories about King Arthur's rise to power with his Knights of the Round Table...and somehow make it seem fresh is to its esteemed credit.  

And, yes, there have been countless films over the years - and even recent ones, like the deplorable TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT and the slightly more agreeable, but just as forgettable KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD - that have pilfered from Arthurian legend in search of telling a uniquely compelling story that tries to breathe new life into it.  I can confidently say, though, that none are as intrinsically unique as THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING, which benefits from its focus on young characters and a modern day setting that's cross morphed with a tone that feels repurposed from the kind of adventure tales I grew up with.  Now, the idea of making a kid-centric King Arthur film displaced in today's world may seem initially contrived, but Cornish never dumbs down the material for young audience members.  He takes the characters, their predicaments, and the underlining mythical quest that they embark on with utmost care and seriousness.  It's a difficult task to make a film that children will, no doubt, enjoy (and the 10-year-old in me ravenously ate this film up) while also making it accessible and sophisticated enough for adults (and the 43-year-old man in me found the narrative and themes engaging).   



Also, the choice of young hero for this film is inspired.  The somewhat short, pudgy, and unpopular Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of motion capture maestro Andy) is a pretty average 12-year-old lad that deals with the nagging difficulties of finding friends and staving off the bullying advances of Kaye (Rhianna Doris) and Lance (Tom Taylor).  Alex does have one confidant in Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), and his friendship with him acts as a buffer for the daily grind of his life.  During one fateful evening while trying to flee from a potential ass-whooping from Kaye and Lance, Alex and Bedders stumble upon a construction site, where they find Excalibur (yes, that one) stuck in a concrete block.  Of course, only the most righteous and worthy can pull the sword out of the stone, which Alex - to his amazement - is easily able to do, and since he's one of the biggest obsessive followers of King Arthur's legend, he soon begins to realize that his insignificant existence now has a newfound purpose.  

Of course, no King Arthur tale (modern or not) would be complete without his Knights of the Round Table and the mighty wizard Merlin as their guide, and Alex and Bedders soon come in contact with the centuries old magic dealer (played by Patrick Stewart in elderly form), who takes the youthful disguise form of a teenager (Angus Imrie), and he matter-of-factly explains to Alex that he is indeed the true chosen one and King and is humanity's last hope to saving it from the vile clutches the evil witch Morgana (an unrecognizable Rebecca Ferguson).  Realizing that he, Bedders, and Merlin will need help, Alex miraculously is able to convince his bullies in Lance and Kaye to overcome their differences and join their crusade, and in the process discover that they may even have to create a grand army of their peers to stop Morgana's world dominating treachery. 

One of the many things that I admired about THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING is that, as mentioned, if doesn't condescend the material down to the point where only a child can engage with it.  It's a family film, to be sure, but it also embraces its main story and themes with a razor sharp focus and, for the most part, treats the King Arthur legend and Alex's hero's journey quest with equal part light heartedness and solemnity.  It follows the usual and obligatory path of previous kids are called upon to save the world narrative conventions, but Cornish invests so much in his characters and their respective plights that it makes his film feel more lively and engaging as a result.  Alex's main story arc of overcoming his deeply held insecurities about his worthiness in the world to become a bona fide leader is emotionally and dramatically potent.  That's not to say that THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING is hard edged and gloomy (although it certainly embraces the inherent darkness of the material and doesn't pull too many punches), but there's legitimate and engaging character development in Alex, seeing him challenged to own up to his newfangled responsibilities as a knight that also has to embody courage, integrity, and teamwork, which is difficult seeing as no one around him early on in the film took him seriously at all.  Plus, there's some relatable embellishment that delves into Alex being fatherless, which gives his mission and unfathomable new responsibilities an added urgency and complexity.  

Without a solid crop of young actors then this film would have really sunk, but Cornish has assembled a very game and splendid cast that all work off of one another fluidly while making the inherent madness of what's transpiring around them feel all the more grounded.  Serkis in particular is a quietly commanding lead, who displays a sense of adolescent spunk, enthusiasm, and uncertainty.  That, and he plays the role relatively straight and earnestly, which makes him feel all the more authentic.  I really admired the film's handling of the dual casted Merlin, who's a terrific envisioned re-imagining of the character who mostly takes the form of a gangly, wide eyed, and messy haired geek that looks like he's had too much sugar and caffeine.  When he casts spells it's a whirlwind of hand motions, slapping, and frantic snapping, and it's also amusing to see him concoct a cure potion that's a weird hybrid of milkshakes and chicken nuggets.  

THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING builds towards a grand climax that pits Alex and his entire school against Morgana and her squadron of flaming demonic knights that's done with impeccable visual effects and an impressive scale (with a small budget of just over $50 million, Cornish makes his film look like it cost double that amount at times).  Cornish's screenplay does suffer from being a bit too talky and heavily expository for its own good at times, and the film's two hour running time may be a bit of an endurance test for old and young alike in the cinema.  Still, there's such empowered creative enthusiasm on display here in THE BOY WHO WOULD BE KING: it delivers on eye popping fantasy and wide eyed adventure.  On top of that, there's two large and positive takeaways for children watching this film: (1) THE BOY WHO WOULD BE KING is a meaningful and timely parable about healthily and productively dealing with bullies, overcoming differences, embracing those that are unlike us, and fostering peace and harmony among those that once wronged us. (2) Alex's odyssey about being a boy suddenly granted adult responsibilities that allows for him to conquer is own insecurities to transform himself for the better should inspire child viewers themselves.   

There's an infectious, old fashioned wholesomeness to THE BOY WHO WOULD BE KING, and it's done with more than a bit of Merlin-like magic.  

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