×

Film Review: ‘The Kid Who Would Be King’

'Attack the Block' director Joe Cornish delivers a contemporary twist on the King Arthur legend full of retro-1980s family-film ingredients.

Director:
Joe Cornish
With:
Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart
Release Date:
Jan 25, 2019

Rated PG  2 hours

Official Site: https://www.foxmovies.com/movies/the-kid-who-would-be-king

A likable enough, Amblin-esque update to the classic Arthurian legend, “The Kid Who Would Be King” is hardly the first time a group of adolescents have saved England from supernatural harm in a Joe Cornish movie. That said, much of the attitude and originality that drew fans to the irreverent writer-director’s inner-city alien-invasion debut, “Attack the Block” — wherein underdog heroes faced off against fluorescent-fanged beasties from outer space — has gone missing from his eight-years-later second feature, which skews considerably younger and safer than that 2011 cult favorite.

Maybe that’s because the kid in question is bland 12-year-old Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis). Polite, Anglo, and thoroughly unexceptional, Alex comes across as an average student in most respects, proving that chivalry is not dead by intervening when best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) is hassled by classmates Kaye (Rhianna Dorris) and Lance (Tom Taylor), two bullies who would no doubt have been sorted into Slytherin if they’d been sent to a more magical boarding school. Oozing menace, Lance reminds the runty do-gooder that he’s the king of Dungate Academy — as if that were a thing thugs say in this day and age.

Next time these two schoolyard villains spot Alex, they chase him into a fenced-off construction site, where the boy slips off a ledge and finds a well-worn sword wedged deep in a block of concrete. Pulling it free without trouble, Alex doesn’t realize that he’s the first person in centuries to touch Excalibur, which was last brandished by the long-dead Arthur and is now coveted by Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), an evil, seemingly immortal enchantress who looks like a cross between Walt Disney’s Maleficent — in full-fledged dragon form — and some sort of sexy mandrake, buried deep but armed with tendril-like roots she uses to spy on the world above.

Speaking of Disney, Cornish’s contemporary twist on Knights of the Round Table lore borrows less from medieval literature than it does from Disney’s 1963 animated “The Sword in the Stone,” which was itself adapted from T.H. White’s 20th-century novel “The Once and Future King.” To further simplify which details of the legend the writer-director considers relevant to this retelling, Cornish supplies Alex with a comic-book-style primer that conveniently describes each of the elements he can expect to encounter on his quest — which involves a trek to Tintagel Island in Cornwall (both home of Arthur and the helmer’s namesake).

Since Alex grew up fatherless, raised not by Merlin but by his single mom (Denise Gough), the possibility remains that somewhere in his family line lies a connection to King Arthur. At least, that’s the assumption on which Alex chooses to accept the seemingly exclusive fate that has been thrust upon him — although unlike White, who conceived Arthur as an orphan of noble origin, Cornish is perfectly fine with Alex’s being ordinary. It’s a charitable attitude to be sure, except that when everybody’s special, no one is (a peculiar tendency that has lately extended to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which implied that a Force-blessed servant boy might one day grow up to take Luke Skywalker’s place, and the final groan-inducing twist of “Glass”).

The one undeniably exceptional character here is Merlin, who switches between three forms with a violent sneeze: Most of the time, he appears as a bright-eyed young man (Angus Imrie) who casts spells using a sequence of finger snaps and flamboyant hand movements that viewers may well attempt to memorize and repeat in the real world. Merlin can become an owl at will, and with a bit more effort, sometimes opts to present himself as Patrick Stewart, who, in just four scenes, significantly boosts how seriously we take the film, which otherwise relies on the charisma of its so-so child actors.

Merlin introduces the element of magic into affairs, the use of which proves as often comic as not, although none of the humor here reaches the laugh-out-loud lunacy Cornish brought to his screenplays for “The Adventures of Tintin” or “Ant-Man.” Rather, so much of his “Kid” script seems worried about how to tick off the various Arthurian elements, awkwardly contorting itself in order to introduce the Lady of the Lake, for instance, while freshening up other aspects with a rather inspired explanation of Stonehenge’s true purpose.

With its retro-video-game score and “Goonies”-style gang of misfit characters, the movie plays like a throwback to Spielberg-produced adventure films of the ’80s. And yet, the premise feels wobbly at best, considering that the movie has no real intention of seeing Alex’s good fortune through to his coronation (what use does England have for a king these days anyway?). Instead, Cornish gives in to the kind of visual effects-heavy set-pieces that fit far more organically in bigger-budgeted movies, as when the souls of fallen soldiers are resurrected as smoldering horsemen, which Alex and his knights must face off against night after night leading up to the CG-intensive finale, as Morgana attempts to steal Alex’s sword by force, with the endgame of enslaving all of England.

Cornish never allows “Kid” to get too dark, and by limiting Alex’s army to the fellow students he finds at Dungate Academy, he reveals the rather narrow demographic he had in mind all along. The PG-rated film never puts any human characters in serious peril, making it far too easy for these kids to overpower their enchanted adversaries. By comparison with “Attack the Block,” whose ensemble of accidental heroes had personality to burn, Alex and his friends come off pretty flat. His limited range and relative privilege all too apparent amid an agreeably diverse cast, young Ashbourne Serkis (son of performance capture pioneer Andy Serkis) feels like sidekick material at best, suggesting that a teenage girl or perhaps an up-and-coming actor of color might have made an even more compelling king.

Film Review: 'The Kid Who Would Be King'

Reviewed at AMC Century City 15, Los Angeles, Jan. 11, 2019. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 120 MIN.

Production: A 20th Century Fox release, presented in association with TSG Entertainment, of a Working Title Films/Big Talk Pictures production. Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nira Park. Executive producers: James Biddle, Rachael Prior.

Crew: Director: Joe Cornish. Screenplay: Joe Cornish. Camera (color, widescreen): Bill Pope. Editors: Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss. Music: Electric Wave Bureau.

With: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart, Dean Chaumoo, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, Angus Imrie.

More Film

  • Ryan Simpkins

    Ryan Simpkins Joins Fox-Disney's 'Fear Street' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Ryan Simpkins has joined Fox-Disney’s second installment of 20th Century Fox and Chernin Entertainment’s “Fear Street” trilogy, based on the novels by R.L. Stine. Leigh Janiak is helming all three films. Previously announced cast includes Gillian Jacobs, Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd, McCabe Slye, Kiana Madeira, Olivia Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Ashley Zukerman, Fred Hechinger, Julia [...]

  • MPAA Logo

    Motion Picture Association of America Hires Emily Lenzner as Communications Chief

    The Motion Picture Association of America has appointed veteran public relations executive Emily Lenzner as its executive VP of global communications and public affairs. She will report to Chairman and CEO Charles Rivkin and oversee the trade group’s communications team in the U.S. and internationally. Lenzner will start Aug. 1 and be based at the MPAA’s [...]

  • 'Cats' Teaser Trailer: See Taylor Swift

    Taylor Swift Unveils Feline Moves in 'Cats' Behind-the-Scenes Teaser

    Taylor Swift fans finally get to see some of the results of all those years spent studying her roommates Meredith and Olivia — and also, not incidentally, some time with a choreographer — in a new behind-the-scenes teaser for the movie “Cats.” The three-and-a-half-minute featurette has footage of Swift striking crouching feline moves as well [...]

  • CGR’s Immersive Premium Format Set for

    Immersive Theater Technology Set for US Debut in Los Angeles

    French multiplex company CGR Cinemas has selected the Regal LA Live as the first U.S. theater to use its Immersive Cinema Experience technology. The ICE format will be unveiled in the fall at the downtown location in a partnership between CGR and AEG. The companies made the announcement Wednesday but did not reveal which title [...]

  • Amazon Developing Original Series Based on

    Amazon Studios Buys 'Selah and the Spades,' Will Develop Original Series (EXCLUSIVE)

    Amazon Studios has acquired worldwide rights to “Selah and the Spades,” a gripping look at a prep school drug dealer, Variety has learned. The film marks the feature debut of writer and director Tayarisha Poe and had its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where it was a favorite with critics. Amazon has [...]

  • The Ultimate Guide to 2019 Comic-Con

    The Ultimate Guide to 2019 Comic-Con Parties and Activations

    Hollywood is heading down the California coast to San Diego because It’s time for 2019 Comic-Con International. The annual cosplay celebration officially kicks off tomorrow, July 18, with a preview happening tonight. Here, Variety gives you a guide to this year’s parties and activations. Make sure to check back for updates. Wednesday, July 17Amazon Prime [...]

  • The Wound African Cinema Berlin Film

    Finance Forum Brings African WIP Into Focus at Durban FilmMart

    The 10th edition of the Durban FilmMart, which unspools parallel to the 40th Durban Intl. Film Festival, will feature 10 fiction and 10 documentary works-in-progress taking part in its annual Finance Forum. The leading co-production market on the continent, the Forum brings together producers, distributors, sales agents, broadcasters, funding bodies, and other industry players from across the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content