The Kid Who Would Be King should very much be a fantastical bit of fun. The movie rather successfully gives the hard sell that childlike idealism is a good thing. It’s much less successful at its other goal of being a clever commentary on the hero’s journeys in the style of King Arthur, which it namechecks, or Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Unwilling to make a real statement about anything other than optimism, The Kid Who Would Be King finds itself caught somewhere between too clever for its own good yet still never actually funny, all while accidentally invoking a perhaps more daring show for adults.
Written and directed by Joe Cornish (Ant-Man, Attack the Block), The Kid Who Would Be King finds Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, yes Andy’s son) as a young English boy living with his mother (Denise Gough, Colette, Juliet, Naked). He runs from bullies (Tom Taylor as a sneering Lance and Rhianna Dorris with too little to do as Kaye) and hanging out with his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo). Alex stumbles upon a sword in a stone, which of course is the real Excalibur, inconsistencies in the mythos aside. Merlin (Angus Imrie and sometimes Patrick Stewart, both charming) is, meanwhile a reverse-aging wizard who revives now to help Alex on his quest to unite a group of knights and take on Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Greatest Showman), who has been festering under the earth since the death of the original Arthur—waiting for a time of great unrest (cough Brexit) and suffering. Alex and friends have just a few days to save Britain from slavery, in an awkwardly depicted doomsday scenario.
The chivalric code is given a decidedly childlike makeover for the 21st century in Kid, which now more or less amounts to being a good person. No need to worry if you’re not familiar with Arthurian legend—this is mostly the Disney-ified Sword in the Stone version which removes the incest (sorry) but adds a quick kid-friendly voiceover to catch you up, as does a comic book throughout the journey. Subtle, this movie is not.
The script smartly removes love stories from the equation, relocating Lancelot/Lance and Arthur/Alex’s dispute from their mutual adoration of Guinevere to a bullying-based power struggle that’s more relatable and age appropriate for the intended audience. Sir Kai is thankfully gender-swapped to Kaye, but unfortunately she has no personality to speak of and few lines, mostly repeating what Lance says for emphasis. Her only discernible character traits are that she is a black girl and, for the first half of the movie, the other bully. At least Lance got a character arc with real growth.
Unlike Cornish’s critically lauded Attack the Block, there’s no John Boyega-like standout among the passable child actors. Imrie gives the most memorable performance as a quirky Merlin, whose The Magicians-esque hand-magic kids will love. Any class or other issues go unexamined. Unfortunately, the chemistry that made Attack the Block a cult hit is missing here. Alex and Bedders work well as a duo, with Bedders doing much of the work as the loyal and goofy best friend. But the nature of the setup—a kid who must unite with his greatest bullies to take on a great enemy—is already a challenge. Plenty of kids’ movies start with some animus, like The Goonies and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. But in those cases, pivotal experiences brought the kids from disliking one another to working together and becoming true friends.
Lance and Kaye are brought into Alex’s quest under false pretenses, something Lance is quick to point out. They stay because Lance wants Excaliber. The bulk of the plot focuses on the Lance’s journey from wanting to steal Excaliber to respecting Alex as a leader, leaving little room to build friendships. It never really sells that they become friends, nor does it try. Unfortunately, unlike many of the Amblin movies that clearly inspired Kid, Lance’s comeuppance isn’t part and parcel of a group life-saving bonding activity. Instead it’s an isolated turning point with no clear path forward.
A downside of Kaye not having much in the way of a character or lines is that it also weakens her ability to move the plot forward. Lance was written to achieve the goal of converting the bullies to teammates—albeit insufficiently—but there are clear points in the script that any child watching can see where Lance changes his mind about being selfish. Kaye has no such moments but instead wordlessly stops actively helping Lance at some undefined point.
The violence is completely bloodless but also repetitive. Savvy kids will figure out by the second or third battle against an identical foe that everything plays out the same each time and nothing truly bad ever happens to the good guys. The villains are never hurt in human form, but rather when they’re (bad CGI) flaming skeletons that crumple to a pile of bones. Even Morgana is scarier when hissing mean thoughts into the kids’ heads to pit them against one another than when she puts the dragon in Pendragon.
The true final battle is a fun one, and a great set-piece. It’s easy to see the joy that Cornish was hoping to infuse in the entire film. But it comes after a final battle fake-out that feels cheap and adds even more minutes onto the runtime. The fake-out ending also muddies the messaging of the movie’s code of honor, flying in the face of everything the movie has to say about chivalry. Getting straight to better material would have made for a stronger finish.
An uneven ride that gives girls the short shrift, The Kid Who Would be King is ultimately still a joyful movie. Kids will likely be amused by it, though they may only want to watch the final battle and Merlin’s magic for future viewings. It’s certainly better than some entrees into Arthurian legend, like Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, but that’s not saying much. Adults are better off rewatching Attack the Block, The Sword in the Stone for the nostalgia, The Mists of Avalon for one of the very best Arthurian adaptations, or checking out the television show The Magicians for a truly irreverent, pop culture-savvy, form-pushing takes on the hero’s journey.