The Kid Who Would Be King will immediately remind viewers of other kids’ fantasy movies. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing will depend a lot on individual mileage with those movies. If you like Percy Jackson or Harry Potter, chances are good that you’ll appreciate the approach that this movie takes in providing a fun, family-friendly adventure that blends camp, action, and character development in a fairly well-balanced package that is sure to please the kids who make up its intended audience.
Written and directed by Joe Cornish, the movie is surprisingly not an adaptation of an existing YA book. While it borrows from the same pool of tropes, its sights are mostly set on telling a specifically British story. Unlike Harry Potter or the Narnia books/movies, there’s little of the nostalgia for 20th century British aristocracy or education. Those looking for a more contemporary take on kids in Britain will find some overtures of that in this movie, though it’s less pronounced than Cornish’s previous Attack the Block.
A kind of retelling and streamlining of the King Arthur mythos, The Kid Who Would Be King tells the story of a sensitive, good-hearted schoolboy named Alex(Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy Serkis) who discovers the fabled sword Excalibur while running away from older bullies Kaye (Rhianna Dorris) and Lance (Tom Taylor). Pulling the sword out means Alex is the “Once and Future King”, destined to follow in King Arthur’s footsteps in gathering loyal knights and fighting the evil sorceress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) and her minions.
The movie plays fast and loose with the mythos it is derived from, which is only appropriate considering how convoluted and endlessly rewritten and reappropriated the Arthurian myths are (as much as any comic book series). The lore is just there to provide a familiar and fun backdrop for the adventure. Merlin (Angus Imrie and Patrick Stewart) shows up for entertaining bits of exposition and the occasional save while the source text that guides Alex, Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), Kaye, and Lance is, very fittingly, a graphic novel version of the King Arthur stories.
The tone of The Kid Who Would Be King is generally light, with a good dose of silliness and camp that usually invites the audience along for the joke. There are some genuinely funny bits, especially whenever Young Merlin is on screen (Imrie steals the movie with a combination of line delivery and physical comedy). Smaller kids might find themselves a little frightened at the surprisingly effective spookiness that Ferguson and the VFX team bring to Morgana, especially early on. When it’s time to get serious, all of the kids are more than adequate in getting you to root for them when they’re noble and be disappointed in them when they’re not. Serkis and Chaumoo are particularly dear, anchoring the movie around their friendship in a way that symbolically and literally recalls the famous duos of adventure and fantasy movies.
The movie recaptures some of the same energy as kids’ adventure movies from the late 80’s and early 90’s, movies that older millennials will remember as bursting with a certain innocence and positivity mixed with rollicking goofball action sequences. The set-pieces, especially toward the end, range from somewhat generic to entertainingly ridiculous. Since all good family movies offer something to the grown-ups, many of the adults in the audience might appreciate these parts of the movie, which are the one concession that it makes to nostalgia.
The writing often leans heavily on contrivance to move its plot along, but is structurally and thematically tight. The motives and arcs of the characters are telegraphed but also clear-cut and satisfying. The rules of the magical elements are firmly stated and then unfurled and played with in interesting ways. The movie relies on a pretty straightforward Hero’s Journey through-line but offers a decent amount of emotional resonance by focusing on relationships between characters even when it seems like it’ll be about something else. The overall message of The Kid Who Would Be King evokes Star Wars: The Last Jedi (of all things) in that it argues that ethical character and right action are more important than lineage, origin stories, or being the “chosen one”. The movie is extremely positive about the role the youth can play in combating division and despair as they sometimes seem to be growing in the world. It has an old-fashioned sense of that struggle but with a contemporary sense of whose struggle it really is.