The Kid Who Would Be King is a children’s film for the Brexit era. It is set in a contemporary Britain in which chaos and bullying are rife. The miseries its 12-year-old hero Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) endures every day at Dungate Academy are typical of what everybody else seems to be experiencing too. The country is sleepwalking towards catastrophe and it needs a saviour. Alex, the powerless and insignificant London schoolboy, is the hero-in-waiting.
Writer-director Joe Cornish gives the legend of King Arthur and the Round Table a new spin. Alex is the one who pulls the sword from the stone after finding the gleaming blade in a building site. Little Alex (played by Andy Serkis’s son) is a pudgy boy on the cusp of puberty. He lives with his mum (Denise Gough) and doesn’t know what became of his father, who left home years before to “fight his demons”. Alex always intervenes to help out his friend, Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), who is teased and tormented by the other kids in the playground. As a result, he gets beaten up himself and is in constant trouble with the teachers.
The early scenes here are charming and original. Cornish opens the movie with a short animated version of the Arthurian legend before switching to present-day London. Alex is an unexceptional boy. He is not bright or athletic. He doesn’t come from a privileged background. However, in his own modest way, he is heroic. Once he has Excalibur in his hands, his destiny is transformed.
Merlin turns up, a gangly adolescent in a Led Zeppelin T-shirt who tries to pass himself off as a schoolboy. In moments of panic and stress, the wizard transforms himself into an owl. Angus Imrie plays his teenage version but every so often, he appears as an old man (with Patrick Stewart taking on the role).
Cornish throws in references not just to King Arthur but to Star Wars and other mythical adventures featuring young heroes who don’t know their own fathers, and engineers a mission for Alex. He and his friends have to bunk off school and head to Tintagel in Cornwall. Here, they will find a magic portal which will lead them into the underground kingdom where they can defeat the evil Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson). “Gone on quest to save Britain. Don’t worry,” is the note written in block capitals Alex leaves his mum.
It’s at this point that the storytelling begins to creak alarmingly. There are laboured scenes in which Alex, Bedders and their two travelling companions, Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), receive lessons in swordplay from fighting trees. The subplot about Alex’s missing father turns out to be a red herring. The film has one explosive climax in which Alex takes on Morgana, but then, just when we think the film is about to end, throws in another. It is never explained what Morgana wants to do with the magic sword or why she wants to turn Britain into a nation of slaves.
The film turns into a mishmash of John Boorman’s Excalibur and an old episode of Grange Hill. It becomes apparent that the two worlds don’t fit together at all comfortably. Some ideas – the Lady of the Lake appearing in the upstairs bathroom, the acne-covered adolescents putting on armour and taking vows of chivalry – seem very misconceived.
Cornish skims over parts of Arthurian myth that don’t fit his scheme. For instance, Kaye seems like the equivalent to Queen Guinevere but this is a very chaste version of the story and there is no attempt to deal with her betrayal of Arthur. Nor does the film really explain how Lance can go from being Alex’s biggest bully one moment to being one of his closest friends the next. Some of the messages (“the sword doesn’t care who your parents are”) and speeches about making enemies into friends seem sanctimonious.
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Cornish is a witty and inventive director but the basic conceit here never really works. It turns out that you can’t build Camelot with a lot of London school kids after all.
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