Cast: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Tom Taylor, Denise Gough, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart
Director: Joe Cornish
Writer: Joe Cornish
We live in increasingly cynical times and the idea that a noble medieval king like Arthur could possibly solve the innumerable problems facing the UK today in the age of Brexit is quite laughable. Yet that is in a sense what Joe Cornish’s newest film is about and with it he invites the viewer to consider the world as it is not through the wearied, sceptical eyes of an adult but through the innocent, eager eyes of a child. It harkens to a mythical time in Britain’s history when the whole country was united under the benevolent rule of a hero among men. In a short, animated prologue the film details the particulars of Arthur’s rule, taking care to emphasise that it was not his ability to slay monsters that made him a great king. What made Arthur a figure of such reverence was the chivalric code by which he upheld the principles of justice, honesty and honour. This was a king who treated his trusted knights as his equals, who made friends of his enemies and who inspired hope and unity in all who followed him. The legacy of Camelot has long since been lost to the world but will soon be unearthed once again by a pair of unlikely pre-teens living in contemporary London.
The Kid Who Would Be King is set in a world where everything is bad (“WAR! GLOOM! FEAR! CRISIS!” read the headlines on a local newsstand) and everyone has more or less resigned themselves to the prospect of a doomed future. The 12-year-old Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is all too familiar with the struggles of living in a world where the strong freely prey on the weak as he and his best mate Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) are bullied at school. Living with his exasperated mother Mary (Denise Gough), struggling to make ends meet in the absence of the boy’s father, Alex identifies strongly with the likes of Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins and Luke Skywalker, all of them orphans dreaming of adventure and destined to become great heroes. His favourite book as a young boy, as a matter of fact, was the anthology of Arthurian fables that his father left him before disappearing. On one fateful day as Alex and Bedders are being chased by their local bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), they stumble into a building site where they find an ancient sword sticking out of a solid concrete block. Alex pulls the sword out of the stone with ease, leading the two boys to conclude that this must be the legendary sword of Excalibur and that fate has decreed they must embark on some great quest in order to save Britain.
Soon Alex is visited by the great wizard Merlin (Angus Imrie), who appears in the form of a teenager and poses as a pupil at the boys’ school under the cunning pseudonym of ‘Mertin’. An eccentric figure who’s liable to transform into an owl or his older self (played by Patrick Stewart) when he sneezes, he reveals to Alex and Bedders that the return of the evil sorceress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), Arthur’s greatest enemy, is imminent. It is Alex’s destiny to take his place as the king the country desperately needs right now and to vanquish Morgana before she can rise with her minions and unleash her wrath on the world. Suspecting that the his estranged father might have a role to play in all this, Alex resolves to set out for Tintagel, the last place the two of them and the supposed birth place of Arthur himself. Joining him on this quest, as well as Bedders and Merlin, are Lance and Kaye, whom Alex knights so that they might redeem themselves and help save Britain from peril. Along the way Merlin trains them in the ways of the greats knights of yore and presses upon them the chivalric code and its tenets of bravery, decency, and honour. If the kids fail to stand by this code and follow it to the letter, then their quest is already lost.
While there is plenty of action along the way, it should be clear from the word go that The Kid Who Would Be King is not a high-concept epic fantasy on the level of The Lord of the Rings. It’s more like if The Goonies or Stand By Me were made today and included a fair few moderate action scenes with modest special effects. This isn’t to say that we don’t get some sense of the grand scale and threatening stakes of the adventure they’ve embarked upon. Cornish treats us to sweeping shots of the English countryside, has the fellowship do battle with animated trees and CGI skeletons on horseback and there is even a climatic siege where the weathered fortress of Helm’s Deep is replaced with a London secondary school. Far from threatening to overwhelm frame after frame with endless masses of CGI like most of the blockbusters you’re likely to see these days, Cornish keeps things simple and clean and the film is stronger for it. It’s a style that enables them to emulate the heroic fantasies that the tale of King Arthur helped inspire while still allowing them to keep things light-hearted and childishly playful; more Narnia than Middle Earth.
The action doesn’t really matter so much as the quest itself. The film is, more than anything, about Alex’s journey of self-discovery. What makes this story work in an era where modernised takes on the Arthurian myth continuously fail (remember Legend of the Sword?) is the way in which it draws new morals from the old, familiar tales. For one thing, the film drops the feudalistic notion that nobility and greatness is borne from one’s birth. In the end it isn’t Alex’s blood or his parentage that makes him great, it’s the lessons that he learns on his journey and that fellowship he builds with his brothers and sisters in arms along the way. The movie is a celebration of community and its ability to overcome any threat through unity and co-operation. The ensemble, many of whom were young and untested actors as were those in Cornish’s previous film Attack the Block, do wonders to sell the idea as well as the fantasy of it all. I especially liked Chaumoo, who I think is destined to deliver a Samwise Gamgee performance for the ages one of these days, and Imrie, who commits to his role wholeheartedly. Together they’ve made a highly charming and enjoyable film and, while it’s still unlikely to solve the world’s problems, it can at least provide a couple of hours of escape and that’s nothing to turn your nose up at.