Joe Cornish’s The Kid Who Would Be King is a movie so filled with fun, heart, and wit, it’s a shame it has such a horrible title. The Arthurian legend of the sword Excalibur and the Knights of the Round Table has persisted for centuries. Ironically, it’s the movies proving to be the one place where the legend has been floundering as of late; until now.
Alex Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is a nice enough boy who suffers, as most of us have, from bullies. His best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) gets the brunt of it though. The two spend their days trying to survive school. At the very least steering clear of the two bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Doris).
After being chased by Lance and Kaye, Alex stumbles upon an abandoned construction site. In the clearing, he sees a sword in the stone. The boy pulls the sword from the stone and soon begins to believe the sword he has pulled is the fabled Excalibur.
Cornish has made a movie aimed at kids but never talks down to them. Kid King is a fairy tale filled with stakes, monsters, evil sorceresses, kooky old wizards, and overcoming odds to succeed in the end. It is, after all, a tale as old as time. But beneath all the trappings it celebrates the notion of being kind, decent, and merciful.
Yes, magic exists in Kid King but as a tool. The real power comes from Alex’s heart and his commitment to a code. Refreshingly the movie understands kids are kids and are susceptible to things like fear, self-doubt, selfishness, and arrogance. Maybe not to the degree that adults are but they’re young yet and are still learning.
Lance and Kaye, the two bullies, are selfish, callow, and relish in their status. The Arthurian legend tells of how he made allies out of his enemies. Cornish’s script is careful not to make Lance and Kaye’s transition from antagonists to allies easy or overnight. Nor do Alex and Bedders become heroic and skilled overnight either. The relationships and skills require work and trust.
The kids are not alone on this journey. Merlin, who when he is a teenager is played by Angus Imrie, and Patrick Stewart when an adult, is their guide. Imrie’s Merlin is a boy out of place and quickly running out of time.
I can’t imagine the weight of playing a character who is also played by Patrick Stewart in the same movie, sometimes even in the same scene. Imrie plays young Merlin with a sense of heedless pomposity and bravado. He may be sixteen but he’s been in limbo for centuries. His young Merlin compliments Stewart’s elderly statesman nicely while still making it believable that these two are one and the same.
Above all else Kid King is fun. Largely because it takes itself just seriously enough to work but not too serious as not to laugh at itself. Such as when Alex learns the fate of the world rests in his hands, he responds with, “I’m twelve. I’ll die.”
Sitting in the audience I found myself wondering if there was an audience for a movie about a monarchical ruler and “chosen one” narratives. To my great surprise and delight, Kid King thought the same thing. Cornish, who both wrote and directed, tweaks the legend in a way that it feels right at home in the modern landscape.
Alex was raised by his single mom, played by Denise Gough. Sadly her character has no name aside from Mrs. Elliot. Odd considering she is the only parent in the entire movie. Cornish cleverly has it so the evil Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) is able to come out at night, and as such all those not knighted by Alex disappear and are frozen in limbo.
But Cornish pushes back against the traditional narrative. Alex has a book about Arthur and his Knights, a gift from his father who he hasn’t seen since he was a small boy. In it is an inscription, “To my once and future king”. Part of the quest has Alex believing he just needs to talk to his father and ask him for advice and help.
His mother tells him, “I had to leave. He had his own demons to battle.” Small wonder that a boy who has pulled a sword from the stone believes his father is actually fighting demons. Cornish deftly destroys the illusion of royal blood or heritage as a right to power by having Alex’s dad never appear.
He’s an alcoholic who ran away and left his mom to raise him on her own. She bought the book for him and wrote the inscription herself. His mother told him a story so he wouldn’t hate his father and in so doing walled off the hurt he had caused her from him. He learns about sacrifice and begins to see his mother in a whole new light.
Kid King has little moments of powerful revelations sprinkled throughout. Such as when Lance accidentally breaks Excalibur. Or when Merlin lectures Alex about putting too much stock in legends and stories. Legends are rumors passed down from one generation to the next; often by the rich and powerful. They are hardly true and when they cease to have any truth to them – you must make new ones.
Cornish and his cameraman Bill Pope strive for magical realism. Scenes set in bogs and marshes have an eerie mood to them as they dimly light the children through fog and smoke. Combined with the way Pop lovingly captures London at night with a sort of clear-eyed manner. Yes, the streets are wet, but my how lovely they look when the lamp lights reflect in the wet blacktop.
If there is a misstep is the use of Morgana. Ferguson is a wonderful talent and camps it up nicely under all the makeup and CGI. Trapped underneath the earth’s crusts for centuries she controls the roots and has an army of undead soldiers. But she is given precious little screen time, but with have she does some marvelous screen chewing.
Overall Kid King is a pleasant surprise. January is notorious for being a graveyard for movies, especially kids movies. While Kid King is no Paddington 2, it’s also no Peter Rabbit. Either way smart, fun, enjoyable movies that believe in magic are a rarity, even for adults; much less for children.
Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox