Director: Joe Cornish
Screenplay: Joe Cornish
Starring: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Tom Taylor, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart, Angus Imrie
Runtime: 119 Minutes
It’s taken a while to finally get here, but writer/director Joe Cornish’s follow-up to cult sensation Attack the Block is once again another film riffing on a very specific nostalgia for 80s cinema in a contemporary urban context, only with a completely different concept at play and a much lighter and more family friendly approach.
The plot follows the young Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) who finds King Arthur's legendary sword Excalibur in a construction site, and must then team up with his friends and enemie, as well as a younger rendition of Merlin (Angus Imrie), and use it to stop the ancient and wicked sorceress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) from destroying the world.
The pitch might sound like something that would elicit groans, but in execution it takes its premise into new and divergent areas, and approaches its subject matter and genre turning subversions with a total sense of sincerity that feels at odds with the quippy post modern oddity that it has been marketed as.
It feels like an escalation of Cornish’s talents as a filmmaker, and has an absolutely fantastic screenplay that’s littered with funny dialogue, is emotionally intuitive and well-structured right down to the nature of boss battles being a recurring element of training sequences. Allowing itself so far as to reach a false ending before allowing its themes to culminate more fully and transcend to another level of involving spectacle. On top of all this, the film looks terrific, with cinematography courtesy of the great Bill Pope and a hearty enthusiasm for bright colours and wonderful sets and designs.
But what it offers is more than just a hero’s journey. Cornish clearly harbours many of his own deep-seated feelings toward the state of modern Britain, smuggles in so much topical subtext regarding weakness in division and a hard stance toward Brexit in all but name. Right off the bat, strong parallels from metaphorical to literal are drawn to the division of contemporary Britain, from the bullying of a non-white child who must “pay for the privilege” to be at the school. In fact, the evil that is returning to the world is stated to be because of divisions in the world and a lack of strong leadership (subtle).
As opposed to just delivering on modern twists on Arthurian Legend and its iconography, such as the pithy relocation of Camelot or the round table being of foldout design. Cornish takes a similar strain of thought when approaching Arthurian Legend to that of The Last Jedi, in that it’s a revisionist fantasy that is very much about the nature of inherited mythologizing, it’s place in popular culture as a form of storytelling and how these narratives come down to exceptional individuals of bloodlines and lineage, only for the story so examine such concepts in an introspective and ultimately more fulfilling way.
The way in which it handles these ideas and Alex’s reactions to them offer moments of genuine growth when accepting that the fantasies and ideals that he may uphold are because of the realities that might be too difficult to face – which would of course come easier to a child.
With all this taken into account, it makes you wish that the villain of the piece, the evil sorceress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) was a little more inspired than being just a thematic stand-in. It also runs perhaps a little too long for young attention spans, but by the time it comes to the tremendously well-staged and executed climax at a barricaded school with kids in armour wielding makeshift weapons to defeat the evil army, it’s the kind of stuff young dreams can be made off as it’s imagination and capability spirals out into the frame as it races toward its conclusion.
The cast all sell the hell out of their respected roles, especially the young newcomers. Serkis is a fabulous lead and every bit his father’s son when it comes to conveying emotions in a palatable and expressive way, with his young supporting cast doing well too. Patrick Stewart is good, but his role is short-lived and exists more to support Angus Imrie as the younger version of Merlin, who is giving the film’s most memorable and broadly funny performance as a man out of time and place trying to reckon with the chaos around him.
The Kid Who Would Be King might be looked over by much of today’s more jaded audience members, but the fact that this modestly budgeted fantast adventure managed to make it into cinemas this wide in this day and age is something worth celebrating and routing for. It’s an absolutely terrific kids fantasy and adventure film that’s unashamedly proud of being just that.