We’re in a sort of renaissance of children / family movies lately. Animation has been reigning in that department for several years now, but recently, with the exception of last December’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, it seems to be taking a backseat to genuinely engaging live-action, kid-friendly films. 2019 looks to be continuing this trend, and The Kid Who Would Be King has set the bar exceptionally high for the rest of the year. It’s an instant classic, harking back to the days of fun family movies of the 80s and 90s, but it’s modern day setting is what allows it to have much more to say than most. Its messages are something that both kids and adults need to hear.
The Kid Who Would Be King is a contemporary twist on the done-way-too-many-times medieval Arthurian legend. Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is an average kid growing up in London. He lives with his single mother in a small town home, near his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), and the two boys attend school together. But school is never something the boys look forward to, as they are constantly bullied by the two “rulers” of the place, Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris). Bedders takes the brunt of the physical harassment, and whenever Alex tries to stand up for his friend, he seems to only get them into deeper trouble.
After a particularly nasty confrontation, Alex is fleeing from Lance and Kaye and ends up in the middle of a large construction site on the outskirts of town. It’s here that he finds the actual Sword in the Stone, Excalibur, and the second he pulls it from the stone, he’s thrown into an ancient struggle of good and evil, whether he’s ready or not. The evil Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) has awoken from her slumber, and it’s up to Alex, along with the help of his friends and the wizard Merlin (Patrick Steward plays the classic old version, while Angus Imrie plays his teenage disguise), to stop her from rising up and enslaving the human race.
The Kid Who Would Be King is a success on nearly all fronts. The performances from the main cast are terrific, particularly Imrie as teenage Merlin. His zany, gawky, but wise depiction of the original wizard steals the show, and his energy seems to spread into the rest of the cast as well. The fun imaginings of how Merlin’s magical spells are done (lots of finger snapping and hand waving and clapping) are both enticing and hilarious every time, and the numerous visual effects are surprisingly impressive for a film that isn’t about superheroes or space. The designs of Morgana and her undead army are both inspired and genuinely frightening. That actual scare factor isn’t something you see often enough in movies meant for children anymore, but that kind of fear is sometimes, if not always, necessary in stories like this, and it never becomes too intense for younger viewers.
Writer and director Joe Cornish is no stranger to creating entertaining and engaging films like this, having directed 2011’s Attack the Block and written alongside Edgar Wright on The Adventures of Tintin and the first Ant-Man. The tale of King Arthur is one that Hollywood has been trying to revive for far too long now with little success, but Cornish seems to have finally cracked it. For something that relies so heavily on a classic story, The Kid Who Would Be King is incredibly modern. Alex, along with the rest of mankind, has become jaded and pessimistic, overwhelmed by the mounting doom and gloom of the current state of the world, as well as his own personal issues. The film makes it clear that the reason the world needs a leader like Alex right now is because people have lost hope – Brexit looms large, Trump is president, and dictators and fascism have risen again throughout the globe.
The state of the world has beaten people down, turning them apathetic and allowed evil to flourish, but The Kid Who Would Be King inspires kids to stand tall and to follow the knight’s chivalrous code of honesty and bravery. It bears a message of unity and how we can only defeat evil together, since division is what that evil relies on. The film also manages to find a clever way to avoid it being a “chosen one” narrative, a trope that’s become tired and, as stated at one point in the film, can actually be harmful. Think of the way The Last Jedi denied that kind of story as well with its main character, and the two go hand in hand.
The Kid Who Would Be King, despite being a tad bit overlong (some chunks of the second act feel unnecessary), is a perfect family film. It’s exciting, incredibly charming, funny, and the ideas and messages brought forth by it are timely and important. It’s not simply entertaining for children, it’s downright inspiring. It also has several scenes of Patrick Stewart in a Led Zeppelin t-shirt, so that justifies the price of a ticket right there.
4 / 5 Stars
The Kid Who Would Be King is now playing in theaters everywhere.