How do you make an old story new? Keep the structure, change the setting and reimagine the characters. That’s what writer/director Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) has done with The Kid Who Would Be King, and to his credit, it’s an effective update to the legend of King Arthur.
Set in modern England, the film starts with a focus on Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) and Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), two tween losers who get bullied on the regular. One night, while escaping tormentors Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), Alex runs into a construction site and sees a sword in a block of concrete … err, stone. He pulls the sword out, not thinking anything of it. It soon is known Alex is a descendant of King Arthur!
It’s worth noting that Alex has zero leadership ability, let alone fighting skills. In this sense, it’s a typical children’s coming-of-age story, in which the ineffective youth is given great responsibility and rises to the occasion to save the day. But it’s a good thing Alex has young Merlin (a terrific Angus Imrie, and played by Patrick Stewart when older) to guide him. Recruiting Lance and Kaye to be his knights, along with Bedders, gives him others to rely upon.
Their foe is the medieval menace Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), a sorceress who was defeated and banished to the bowels of the Earth thousands of years ago—only to return in the present day. She’s just the right amount of threatening for a kids’ movie. Morgana is fearsome enough to be a legitimate villain, but not so imposing that you can’t fathom how the kids will defeat her. Yet, pet peeve: She often speaks in a whisper, which is supposed to make her more menacing. Instead, it’s annoying—a slightly deeper, stern version of Ferguson’s regular voice would have sufficed.
The reason Morgana is back? As news headlines reveal, the world is tearing itself apart. Poor leadership, political strife and social divisions have brought mankind to a breaking point, and Morgana is eager to strike while humanity is at its weakest. No specific politicians are named, but the social commentary is unmistakable. How well it fits in a film in which characters directly reference—and at times become a part of—an illustrated children’s book is up for debate.
There are no surprises in The Kid Who Would Be King, and that’s fine. This is a movie aimed at older kids/early teens which accomplishes what it sets out to do in a satisfactory way. The only real point of concern for younger viewers is the running time. The film is 132 minutes long, which is almost an eternity for a generation not well known for its ability to maintain an attention span more than a finger-snap. Regardless, the action, visual effects and humor (and the cool knight gear they get to wear and use) should be enough to keep them engaged throughout.