2:45pm PT by Josh Spiegel
'The Kid Who Would Be King' and the Challenge of Pleasing a Fanbase
At first glance, the new family film The Kid Who Would Be King seems like it might just be an attempt to revive a presumably familiar bit of intellectual property for modern audiences with little inspiration behind it. Taking the legend of King Arthur and updating it for modern times isn’t new, but it’s almost instantly clear that The Kid Who Would Be King has a bit more on its mind, thanks to its writer and director, Joe Cornish. Cornish isn’t a household name, but some sci-fi fans may know him for his 2011 directorial debut, Attack the Block, a snappy and entertaining hybrid of '80s-style science fiction and social comedy that introduced the world to both John Boyega, years before Star Wars, and Jodie Whittaker before Doctor Who. Cornish’s presence behind The Kid Who Would Be King, after so many years since his first film, at least ensures that this movie isn’t as dumb as it could’ve been.
Though it’s not officially based on any of the various Arthurian adaptations, The Kid Who Would Be King does essentially transpose the story onto a group of British kids who come to realize that they’re occupying the roles, in the 21st century, of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, coming together to take down a villainous sorceress. Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is the King Arthur stand-in, taking out a fearsome-looking sword from a stone at a construction site only to realize it’s Excalibur. Soon, he, his longtime best friend, and two of their bullies are encouraged by a teenage version of Merlin (Angus Imrie) to team up and take down the nefarious Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) before she overtakes all of Britain.
Fans of Attack the Block may be surprised to see Cornish take a right turn into family entertainment for his second film. Though both Attack the Block and The Kid Who Would Be King focus on a disparate group of kids, Cornish’s debut was much more adult in scope. Boyega played Moses, the leader of a gang of kids in a low-income part of London who becomes the nation’s best fighting chance against a strange crew of dark, furry alien creatures trying to kill any humans in their path.
In both films, an unexpected hero is called to action, and both films exhibit an odd streak of humor. In The Kid Who Would Be King, we learn that Merlin has to sustain his energy by eating gross-sounding ingredients that can only be found in fast-food fried chicken. But Attack the Block, with its bloody violence, drug use and profanity, keeps you off-guard with its balance of British kitchen-sink social commentary and Gremlins-style action. The Kid Who Would Be King, on the other hand, has its charms but is vastly more predictable.
What strength The Kid Who Would Be King does exhibit is similar to one of the best parts of Attack the Block — the spiky camaraderie between the teenage leads. (It’s similar to how both Attack the Block and Kid both present world-ending scenarios that can only be solved by kids, not adults.) As in the days of King Arthur, Alex has chosen to bring into his Round Table characters he doesn’t particularly like, in the form of bullies Kaye and Lance, and that friction causes compelling twists throughout. As in Attack the Block, the youthful cast is bursting with energy (and here, there’s the added, slightly odd bonus of young Serkis, who does look a good deal like his famous father, Andy), even though it’s hard to know if there’s a future John Boyega among the group.
But young casts aside, Attack the Block and The Kid Who Would Be King are very different. The former isn’t just for teenagers and above with its R-rated language and action. One of Attack the Block’s many charms is that, since it was made by an indie studio and a first-time director, the effects work had to be more practical than CGI. The Kid Who Would Be King has something closer to CGI violence out of The Lord of the Rings as Morgana draws various flaming undead soldiers (like you do) out of the ground to attack Alex and his knighted friends each night before the arrival of a particularly powerful solar eclipse. Cornish stages the sequences decently enough, but here and elsewhere, there’s an unerring sense that the movie is going through the motions a bit.
The Kid Who Would Be King is a perfectly fine Saturday matinee in the doldrums of late January and early February. The film’s argument against pervasive negativity (Cornish makes clear from the opening that he’s at least displeased with post-Brexit Britain, another bit of social commentary) and in banding together friends and enemies is both admirable and, unsurprising considering its source material, a bit antiquated. While writer/director Cornish does a decent job of bringing the old legend of King Arthur to the 21st century, it’s a slight letdown, knowing how much he was able to upend the sci-fi genre with Attack the Block, to see him operating in a bit more predictable fashion here.