“The Kid Who Would Be King:” A familiar, but heartwarming story


Kerry Brown/Twentieth Century Fox/TNS

Louis Ashbourne Serkis in the film “The Kid Who Would Be King.”

By Victoria Pfefferle-Gillot, Senior Staff Writer

January is not exactly the best time for films. It’s what’s historically known in the film industry as a dump month, when studios release the movies they don’t think will succeed in the box office. Everyone’s still coming down off the holiday blockbuster rush and getting ready for awards season, so there’s not too much interest in movies coming out at the turn of the year, especially when the weather is miserable.

On the surface, “The Kid Who Would Be King” seems to fit the bill of kitschy family film shunted into the January dump to be forgotten by kids and their parents the day after they see it. However, while this modern spin on the legend of King Arthur isn’t destined to break the box office, it succeeds in crafting an enjoyable and mildly poignant tale from a straightforward old narrative with dozens of other remakes.

This film is the second project by U.K. director Joe Cornish, whose directorial debut happened in 2011 with the sci-fi cult film “Attack the Block,” which was notable for pioneering the career of John Boyega, an actor now known for his leading role in the latest “Star Wars” movies.

“The Kid Who Would Be King” opens with an impressive storybook animation retelling of the general legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It establishes the main antagonist, Morgana Le Fay (Rebecca Ferguson), King Arthur’s half-sister who desires to rule the world. She’s banished into the underworld and vows to return when “hearts are hollow and the world is leaderless.”

After a significant time-skip, the audience is introduced to the main protagonist — 12-year-old Alexander Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) — who, with his friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), gets frequently picked on at school. After a particular incident standing up to bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Doris), he gets them put in detention, along with himself.

In an attempt to avoid the bullies after school, Alex comes across an abandoned construction site, where an old medieval-style sword is stuck in a slab of concrete. He pulls it out and quickly discovers that it’s the legendary blade Excalibur. Alex later learns from a surprisingly youthful-looking Merlin (Angus Imrie) that he is destined to form a new round table of trusted knights for an impending battle with Morgana, who will re-emerge with an army of undead soldiers to conquer the Earth — in only four days.

Serkis, son of famous actor and director Andy Serkis, is convincing and entertaining in his portrayal of Alex. He and energetic costar Chaumoo capture childhood joys, struggles and hopes in a believable way. Bedders is bright-eyed and eager to star in his own fantasy adventure, but Alex — while receptive to his friend’s enthusiasm — has started to grow out of his youthful idealism and sense of wonder.

Imrie steals every scene he’s in as the quirky and enigmatic, yet lovable Merlin. Surprisingly, Imrie’s performance does not feel upstaged by Patrick Stewart — the only A-list actor in the movie — who plays Merlin whenever the character transforms into his older form. He is both goofy and charming, and he brings heart to the role. Instead of waving a wand or a staff or reciting spells in Latin, Imrie deftly performs magic via complicated secret-handshake gestures. He does not fumble for a second in movement or facial expression, making a silly idiosyncrasy seem much more believable than it should be.

The production budget for film was $59 million, which is relatively small for an action-adventure fantasy film. However, its money was used well. Morgana’s army of undead soldiers and their flaming fire-breathing skeleton horses looked absolutely phenomenal. The way they interacted with the world — crawling out of the ground and fighting against the kids and Merlin — was seamless and engaging.

The costumes, while simple in design, are effective and highlight the childlike nature of the film. The cinematography is engaging for the most part, with dynamic establishing shots and action scenes, all of which feel like homages to the “Lord of the Rings” films. On top of all of this, the music, composed by Electric Wave Bureau, was thrilling and exciting, with adventurous swells and pulse-pounding chase pieces threaded throughout.

The action scenes are well-balanced, feeling much like progressive level-ups in a video game. Each night before the final climactic battle, undead soldiers attack Alex and whoever he has knighted with Excalibur until they are all defeated or the sun rises. With each subsequent fight, the stakes are raised and the action is heightened accordingly to build up to the ending climactic fight. This way, there is no sense of battle fatigue that often comes up in similar kinds of epic movies when they all feel the same.

“The Kid Who Would Be King” is certainly not without its flaws, however. The film is exactly two hours long and the story is fast-paced in order to fit all of the plot into its runtime. As a result, most of the characterization is surface-level, which makes motivation seem a little thin. In addition, the second act feels awkward in between its action scenes, padded with either countryside walking or obligatory argument scenes. While the acting is generally decent, Doris and Taylor’s characters suffer from the lack of depth given to them. Their transition from bullies to allies is clunky and could have used more time or nuance.

Despite its rushed narrative and typical coming-of-age fantasy layout, “The Kid Who Would Be King” truly shines in its modesty and its message. This movie doesn’t set out to be the next extended cinematic universe or some groundbreaking piece of cinema. It’s enjoyable, fun and demonstrates the value of friendship and self-determination. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what your family ties are — a strong heart and true courage count towards worthiness. Legends are simply rumors and whispers passed across the centuries, and you have the ability to write your own.

“The Kid Who Would Be King” faces the apathy of today’s culture and positions itself and its audience to push back against it. In the face of a weary and dreary society, “The Kid Who Would Be King” encourages us not to give up and inspires a sense of hope for the future.