The inexplicably long-titled The Kid Who Would be King (was there no easier alternative?) opened at the end of January this year without any fanfare from 20th Century Fox. It’s no surprise that the film sunk like a stone at the box office. The marketing campaign just wasn’t appealing, there’ve been countless films about Arthurian legend, and, worst of all, live-action children’s entertainment has been mostly deemed unworthy unless it’s produced by the House of Mouse (which is as backwards as it gets, but these are the times we live in). And that is truly tragic, because The Kid Who Would be King is actually fantastic family entertainment, recalling the laurels of successful and still-appealing family adventures that were common in the early to mid 1990s. It didn’t deserve the treatment it got, and I personally hope that it’ll find an audience once it becomes available for home viewing next month.
Written and directed by the talented British filmmaker Joe Cornish, Kid is completely different than his debut feature, the similarly underrated Attack the Block, which saw a group of hoodlums taking on bizarre aliens in an apartment flat. But despite the two films’ difference in tone, audience, and genre, they both prove that Cornish is a director who likes to mix his genre filmmaking with a sense of cultural relevancy, often exploring topics and events that are pertinent to the times without necessarily bogging down the central narrative. In Attack the Block, it was racial and class struggles; in The Kid Who Would be King, it’s the strain of generational divide. What one generation leaves behind, another must find a way to overcome, and hopefully make things better for the next.
You’re probably wondering how that ties into Arthurian legend. Pretty simple, actually. Cornish paints the legends and stories as real — because they eventually invade the real world — but also contextual. For the kids who read the books, chiefly Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), they provide a sense of comfort, hope, and morals. They are not necessarily the guidebook by which life must be lived, but a signifier that legends are meant to inspire. In the context of the plot, the film is about young, put-upon Alex, who draws the sword of Excalibur from its shockingly poorly hidden place inside a construction site. With Excalibur drawn, the evil Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) begins to awake from her prison inside an underworld, bent on reclaiming the sword that sealed her there in the first place. Merlin (both Patrick Stewart and Angus Imrie) arrives to train Alex and the fellow classmates he knights so that they can put an end to Morgana once and for all. But Alex is unsure that he is truly the chosen one, or that his lineage is truly worthy of wielding such a responsibility.
There really isn’t anything particularly special about the plot, but it is executed surprisingly well, and often with flair. It’s the rare modern kids film that doesn’t have a script inundated with pop culture references. Its kids still act like kids, but in a manner that feels like it’ll age much better. Classical storytelling is the name of the game here, and Kid isn’t really bent on shaking it up. In some ways, the Campbellian structure feels appropriate for the story, which is depicted as a modern-day myth that’s being woven right before our eyes to match and parallel with the Arthurian tales themselves. On the other hand, the film is a bit predictable. And the final act, a spectacular battle set inside of a school, runs unnecessarily long, like the climaxes of most blockbuster films these days.
But on the whole, the film is far more spry and intelligent than many of its ilk. And it’s made well, with action better and more imaginative than just about every Marvel film. Good family adventures are a sad rarity these days, and The Kid Who Would be King is a reminder that when these are done right, and made with actual skill and thoughtfulness, their appeal is totally understandable. And it’s not as though the film is entirely toothless. It’s actually quite scary. The children are chased by an army of flaming skeletons that only they can see and interact with. Trees are brought to terrifying life by dark magic. Morgana herself becomes a twisted, bat-like monstrosity by the end. There’s nothing especially bloody or traumatizing, but the film has a bite to it that makes the drama and stakes feel genuine. It’s lighthearted but not frivolous as a result, and that’s a good balance. It often recalls the works of Joe Johnston, whose Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Jumanji are both fantastic examples of family entertainment that remains appealing to kids without sacrificing a true sense of conflict, great atmosphere, and some good shocks.
But what makes Kid even more compelling than the average live-action family flick is in its thematic sensibilities. As mentioned earlier, the film is ultimately about the newest generation rising to the task of cleaning up what was left behind by the previous generation. It’s clear that Cornish was inspired by the events of Brexit while making this film. But it’s also a compelling notion that our parents, though they may love and care for us, may leave behind wounds and trauma that will ultimately be up to us to fix. In the film, Alex comes from a fractured family. His mom raises him, and he’s never really heard from his dad. All he has is his Arthurian book of legends, gifted to him by his absent father the last time Alex saw him. Most are probably expecting Alex’s father to be descended from Arthur himself, isolated because he wants to protect his son. But no, the film throws a heavy-hitting curveball by confirming that Alex’s dad was an absentee drunkard, and that the book wasn’t even bestowed to Alex by him. It was something his mom did to try and protect her son. Alex is truly ordinary. But it makes what he’s set out to do, and the drive he finds along the way, all the more affecting.
It’s up to Alex and the other kids, the only people who can see and interact with the dark sorcery of Morgana, to rescue the world during the eclipse. Throughout the film, they doubt themselves and quarrel amongst one another because of their insecurities. They’re young. The world doesn’t see them as worthy or capable enough. But at the end of the day, they can choose to either accept that, or work to discover how to make changes in their own way. It’s no surprise what route the kids ultimately choose, but it’s still incredibly exciting to see a film for kids that empowers them without ever being condescending or unrealistic about its thematic material. The world of tomorrow could be a better place, indeed.