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Like the case with dinosaurs, it’s not exactly hard to figure out why kids are attracted to the story of King Arthur. As amazing as science-fiction and fantasy can be, there is an extra dose of awesome that comes packed with the fact that the world as we know not only looked different, but was populated with knights and designed with epic castles and fortresses. Obviously there is an extra bit of magic added in to spice things up, but still, the nature of the legend sparks a special imagination.
All of this also explains why we never go a few years without seeing some kind of big screen adaptation of the myth. In fact, we’ve seen two in the last decade-and-a-half, including Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur and Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Given the ubiquity of these films, the only way to stand out with a new take is by actually having a new take – but fortunately that’s exactly what writer/director Joe Cornish has with The Kid Who Would Be King. A sophomore effort that arrives eight years after Attack The Block, it’s a clever, cute, fun, and thrilling adventure, and one that properly tuned-in kids will obsess over.
Based on an original screenplay by Joe Cornish, the film is set in the present and follows the adventure of Alex Elliott (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) as he makes some startling discoveries about his destiny. He is a kid with a clearly defined idea of right and wrong, constantly defending his best friend, Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), from a pair of bullies, Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), but at the same time he lives in a world that has lost its way in the moral arena. It’s a situation worthy of despair, but hope arrives when, after being chased by his tormenters to an empty construction site, he successfully pulls Excalibur from a stone.
The timing of this discovery could not be better, as the evil sorceress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) – who had been banished by her half-brother King Arthur to a hell underground – has begun to gain strength, feeding on the world’s animosity. Obviously this is a lot to throw on to the shoulders of a child, but fortunately he has the help of the great wizard Merlin (Angus Imrie), who is aging backwards, but sometimes takes his “younger” form (Sir Patrick Stewart) when necessary.
Understanding his role as a modern day Arthur, and knowing the story from a book left for him by his absentee father, Alex starts his quest to find a way to defeat Morgana – first by uniting a roundtable of knights with both friends and foes a.k.a. Bedders, Lance, and Kaye. Together they set out on an adventure to stop the arrival of magical evil, learning to become more like their historical counterparts as they continue.
This obviously isn’t the normal bold and epic drama that we see from adaptations of this legend, but The Kid Who Would Be King is not only charming, but has a fantastic featly and appreciation for the source material. While being set in the 21st century demands certain alterations, it’s exciting to see how Joe Cornish folds the elements into the modern story he wants to tell – from the Sword in the Stone, to the Lady In The Lake. It’s not only clever, but also feels nostalgic for those with childhood memories of the tale.
There is a bit of a drag that the film hits as it transitions from its second to third act, with the story losing a bit of its steam and feeling momentarily directionless, but it sticks the landing in the end with a tremendously exciting and creative finale. At the same time, what really carries you through the whole experience is simple strong characterization, as you find yourself really caring about Alex’s quest and both his survival, and the survival of his friends.
It can obviously be a gamble when a cast is primarily filled with children, but Joe Cornish has put together an excellent ensemble here - with a commanding lead performance by the young Louis Ashbourne Serkis. Dean Chaumoo is also delightful and responsible for many of the film's funniest moments, but the true scene-stealer is Angus Imrie, who makes his feature debut with the movie. He has a unique and eccentric energy that enchantments and captivates, and you’re smiling every second he’s on screen as Merlin.
Reflecting back on The Kid Who Would Be King the thought that kept coming back to my head is that it’s a film that I would have absolutely loved as a kid – and there’s a timeless quality to it that suggests it will connect now just as well as it would have back in the 1990s. It’s charming from end to end and consistently exciting, while also possessing a great deal of heart with a wonderful story about morality, communication, and unity. It’s an excellent movie that we need right now, and a sweet early-in-the-year surprise.