You may know Joe Cornish from his brief appearances in Hot Fuzz or Star Wars: The Last Jedi, or his co-writing credit on The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. More likely, however, you’re familiar with his directorial debut, 2011’s Attack the Block. The film is, to say the least, a wonder, neatly balancing horror, comedy, and social commentary as its teenage protagonists fight to survive in their South London council estate.
In the years since, Cornish attached himself to a number of projects — Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man, a potential adaptation of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash — most of which fizzled or stalled in Development Limbo, making the advent of his second feature, The Kid Who Would Be King, so exciting. I don’t mean it as a total slam when I say you’d do best to lower your expectations. A spin on Arthurian legends for modern times, The Kid Who Would Be King isn’t lacking in charm, but that charm isn’t enough to carry an entire movie.
As in Attack the Block, Cornish’s protagonists are young children and teenagers. Alex (played by Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of mo-cap king Andy) is targeted by bullies at school, as is his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo). Standing up to them, and for what he thinks is right, comes naturally to Alex, but the chaos of the world at large (there’s a great shot of a newsstand stacked with doom-saying headlines) starts getting to him.
There’s no divorcing The Kid Who Would Be King from its particular milieu, as said doom and gloom is directly related to the political turmoil of the last few years, and the events of the film are unmistakably set in a post-Brexit Britain. It makes sense on a broad level — national and international disasters of any variety tend to feel more abstract as horrors in adolescence than they do in adulthood — though Cornish’s context is vague, increasingly so as the film progresses. General unease and discord are, after all, pervasive throughout history.
The clouds start to lift when Alex discovers Excalibur in an abandoned construction site, though the magical sword has magic — good and bad — in tow. Undead soldiers rise from the ground, intent upon wresting the sword from Alex’s grasp; they’re met, in turn, by Merlin (played in turns by Patrick Stewart as an old man, and Angus Imrie as a sprightly youth), who aids Alex in preparing to face the supernatural.
As in Attack the Block, Cornish finds fun in the idiosyncrasies of his spin on Arthurian legend, such as the way time stops and everyone not “knighted” by Alex disappears as soon as the monsters appear, and the way Merlin’s magic is triggered by flourishes of his hands and snaps of his fingers. Specificity wins the day, especially in the final act of the film, as Alex’s school is made siege-ready using only the materials that are already inside, including pommel horses and climbing ropes.
Unfortunately, these moments are punctuation rather than the meat of the film, and The Kid Who Would Be King falls into anemic, predictable territory for stretches at a time. Though there’s something refreshing about a film relatively unconcerned with dramatic stakes — the danger the kids are in is always fun rather than dire — the lack of tension sags under the weight of two hours’ worth of action.
At points, the movie plays more like a JRPG, cheery and colorful in a way that feels more akin to the Dragon Quest series than an adventure movie. The score, by Electric Wave Bureau, vacillates between 8-bit-esque electronic riffs and more typical orchestral arrangements, and the story’s step-by-step progression does little to dismiss the sense that the film is moving through stages, leading up to a final boss.
Only Imrie (whose neck a YouTube comment astutely described as “longer than my dad’s trip to get a pack of cigarettes”) seems completely tuned into the movie’s wavelength, committing to the nonsense demanded of him to a degree that makes Merlin’s ridiculousness compelling. Each time he flaps his arms to cast a spell or drops out of the air as he transforms back from being an owl, the film experiences a jolt of life. He’s absolutely terrific — it’s just a pity that the rest of the cast (including Stewart) seems a little stranded at sea.
The young actors are good, especially Tom Taylor and Rhianna Dorris as bullies eventually conscripted into the Arthurian effort, but their efforts are hampered by how normal they’re meant to be, as per the “anyone can be a hero” moral of the story. Their flaws — selfishness, rudeness, fearfulness — are easily solvable and hit the expected marks. (It’s encouraging, however, that the kids are a mix of genders and ethnicities without any comment being made on the fact. It’s treated as normal, as it should be.)
That general simplicity only exacerbates things as the film drags on a bit too long, with two climactic scenes that are both too brief and too easily won. Still, for how staid the film mostly is, Cornish is clearly striving for more, taking the broad idea of everyday heroism and jazzing it up with riffs on Arthurian legend (the Lady of the Lake appears out of a bathtub) and the kind of scrappy derring-do that made Attack the Block so great. Hopefully it won’t take another eight years for us to see what else the filmmaker has in store.