The Kid Who Would Be King, the English writer-director Joe Cornish’s family-friendly take on the King Arthur legend, might be smarter that the average live-action kids’ movie, but it’s hamstrung by a lack of visual imagination and a generic script. It starts promisingly enough. After an animated prologue about the Knights Of The Round Table, we drop into present-day London, where the grownup world seems to have gone crazy. Newspaper headlines and BBC sound bites spell out the omens of a dark time: scandals, authoritarians, political and social stagnation, scientists warning of doom and extinction. For anyone coming of age in the late 2010s, it reminds us, the future looks far from hopeful.
Soon, we meet Alex Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy), the every-kid from Malory Road who lives in gray prefab house with his single mom (Denise Gough) and spends his trips to and from school evading teen bullies with his best friend and fellow geek, Bedders (Dean Chaumoo). One evening, while hiding from the aforementioned bullies, Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), he finds a sword sticking out of a concrete block at a construction site. Of course, it’s no ordinary sword but Excalibur, the legendary weapon of King Arthur, which has a mind of its own. It’s picked Alex to be its champion in the fight against Arthur’s half-sister, the evil sorceress Morgana Le Fay (Rebecca Ferguson), and her undead minions. For centuries, she has lain dormant underground, encased in icky roots and trellises, waiting for the kingdom to fall into disorder and discontent. No one says “Brexit,” but we get the picture.
Cornish’s 2011 debut film, Attack The Block, which pitted a gang of teen delinquents against an invasion of eyeless space gorillas with glowing green teeth, got a lot of its oomph by moving around the dystopically huge frontage of a brutalist South London housing project and through its interior maze. Its most blatant influence was Steven Spielberg (for whom Cornish co-wrote that year’s The Adventures Of Tintin), though it wasn’t a slavish imitation like the majority of this decade’s mostly-1980s-set Amblin wannabes—a subgenre effectively kicked off by Super 8, which hit theaters the month before Attack The Block’s American release. But one finds only traces of the earlier movie’s filmmaking confidence in Cornish’s less action-packed sophomore feature, even though the plot begs for a similar conflation of home and fortress.
The young cast is serviceable (read: not annoying), but there’s no charismatic presence along the lines of John Boyega, who made his film debut in Attack The Block. Most of The Kid Who Would Be King’s personality comes from its Merlin, who usually takes the shape of a teenage weirdo (Angus Imrie), but occasionally takes on the form of Patrick Stewart for a boost of exposition-delivering gravitas. Materializing from the beyond through the triliths of Stonehenge, the wizard inserts himself into Alex and Bedders’ class as a suspiciously tall new student named “Mertin.” He has a job at a fried chicken restaurant (setting up what turns out to be the film’s best joke) and a habit of turning into an owl whenever he needs to leave a room. Alex, he says, has four days to assemble his version of the Knights Of The Round Table—taking King Arthur’s example by besting and then knighting his strongest foes, Kaye and Lance, alongside his buddy Bedders—and defeat Morgana, who will emerge from her subterranean lair during an upcoming solar eclipse.
Authentic Arthur legend is awesomely weird and loopy, idealized and mystical. But The Kid Who Would Be King mostly goes through the motions of a one-size-fits-all quest, as Alex, Bedders, Kaye, and the mostly useless Lance leave London for Cornwall to find the entrance to Morgana’s subterranean hideout and track down Alex’s absent father, who the boy believes holds the secret to his momentous destiny. Sometimes, they have to fight off of Morgana’s minions, video-game-y skeletal baddies that shatter into piles of bone and cinders. But Cornish, for better and worse, is trying to have it both ways, offering both a sanitized fantasy about a boy whisked into a world of knights and magic, and a commentary on the same.
Often using Merlin as the film’s mouthpiece, he thumbs his nose at some of the tropes of modern-day pop myth (Harry Potter is a specific target), all while offering his own hodgepodge of swords-and-sorcery clichés and less-than-special effects. It’s a problem often faced by children’s entertainment, which has to address both its escapist fantasies and the realities and anxieties of its young audience. (Spielberg’s mastery of—and pointed subversion of—this formula remains the most imitated model.) Though it has a healthy sense of humor, The Kid Who Would Be King never nails the fantasy part (even its Excalibur looks cheap), and ends up with nothing to hang its more grownup ideas on.