It’s been a rough few years for apocryphal English folk heroes: last year’s Robin Hood missed the mark, while Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur was a costly flop. Both films failed by sticking modern sensibilities onto anachronistic period settings. The Kid Who Would be King flips this formula by telling an old-school adventure story in contemporary England, making for a far fresher take.
It helps, of course, that The Kid Who Would be King boasts Joe Cornish as writer/director, back for his belated second feature eight years after Attack the Block wowed. His time away hasn’t been wasted; Kid is an ambitious follow-up, albeit a less surprising one. Louis Ashbourne Serkis (son of Andy) stars as Alex Elliot – an everyday school kid who happens to be the heir to Excalibur. Along with bestie Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) and bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), the young Knights of the (Ikea) Roundtable set out to slay a re-awakened Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) before she can enslave the land. As far as Arthurian fantasies go, it’s streamlined to a borderline simplistic degree.
But what The Kid Who Would be King lacks in fantasy machinations, it makes up for in thoughtful themes. Without being heavy-handed, it’s a meaningfully relevant film: Morgana’s return is prompted by the socio-political divisions being acutely felt in the west. And by refusing to explicitly tie Alex’s status as the Once and Future King to his bloodline (there’s an affecting mystery surrounding Alex’s absentee father), it reinforces the idea that hope for the future lies in the honourable conduct of a younger generation.
But don’t mistake earnestness for worthiness. Kid is often delightfully silly, while the contemporary setting allows for ample inventive twists on Arthurian iconography. Proving he hasn’t lost his knack for assembling a young ensemble, Cornish’s teenage cast are a warm, likeable bunch – if a little rough around the edges – while Ferguson’s deliciously evil Morgana is a striking piece of design, but a little one note. Patrick Stewart also appears as Old Merlin for a handful of scenes when the script requires an injection of gravitas, but he’s upstaged by Angus Imrie (son of Celia) as a young, hilariously weird reskin of the wizard.
As a complete package, The Kid Who Would be King isn’t quite as accomplished as Cornish’s superlative debut. There are pacing problems, owing to a slightly bloated two-hour runtime (a fake-out final battle feels like a particularly unnecessary bit of padding). But a climactic high-school siege where Alex and his peers fend off an army of the dead is full of inventive flourishes, sending you out on a rousing high. The king has returned.
- Release date: Out now (US)/February 15, 2019 (UK)
- Certificate: PG-13 (US)/PG (UK)
- Running time: 120 mins