There’s a certain magic to the perfect childhood movie. It involves the right mix of high adventure, coming of age, poor parental supervision, and the innocence of youth. The 80s was jam-packed with movies that somehow nailed this (or maybe I just think that because I was a child of the 80s), and it feels like this century just hasn’t really been focussed on that type of movie. Sure we had things like Super 8 and Stranger Things, but those are more like homages to the films of the 80s. They ride high on nostalgia more than innate magic.
No, true childhood adventure has been kind of hard to come by lately and that’s why The Kid Who Would Be King from Joe Cornish, a man who captured this kind of magic already in Attack the Block, looked so damn wonderful. It’s a fairytale adventure involving a group of kids, magic, and nary a care for crushing realism. It follows a cast of kids going out on their own into an adventure that is far too big for them. It features magical creatures and a world-conquering evil. Turns out childhood wonder can be recaptured, but it’s damn hard.
The Kid Who Would Be King
Director: Joe Cornish
Release Date: January 25, 2018
In case it wasn’t clearly obvious, The Kid Who Would Be King is a sort of updated telling of the Arthurian legend. Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), a nerdy kid with a heart of gold, finds a sword in a stone one night and is whisked away on an adventure to save the world from the evil sorceress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson). Aiding him on this quest is his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) and the two school bullies, Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris). The four form a broken team who must come together to overcome odds that parents just couldn’t take care of, all with the help of a reincarnated Merlin, played by both Patrick Stewart and Angus Imrie.
It’s a pretty classic set up to these kinds of movies, but Cornish’s script offers some twists and turns that make it a bit more. Alex’s holy grail is finding his estranged father and so, like all good childhood stories, the real tale isn’t about the adventure but the heart behind it. When a movie really captures that childhood magic it balances both the fantastical with the real and The Kid Who Would Be King find that balance pretty well. While the coming of age tale kind of peters out in the end as a giant battle between good and evil plays out in a school, the rest of the film wonderfully balances magic action sequences with deeper stories about friendship and family.
That ending, though. It feels a bit tacked on almost. The emotional arch of the story is almost completely dropped for a ten-minute rally that’s trying to be something out of The Lord of the Rings when the real heart of the movie was wrapped up well before. The Rider of Rohan charging in to save the day is only powerful because the film still needs them. The extra endings are not, and that’s kind of how Kid ends. It’s a big fun scene, but it sucks out the magical personal adventure that came before it. A little restructuring would have kept the magic throughout the film.
This isn’t to say that the ending ruins the film. There’s still that sense of wonder that an unsupervised adventure can create. While the stakes get pretty high and there are life and death situations it all feels like those grand films of the 80s without being a rip off of them. That’s probably the film’s greatest strength: it feels original. Obviously, the legend of King Arthur is one of the oldest stories in the book, but the movie doesn’t feel like it’s trying to do someone else’s story. Cornish directs the film with the kind of excitement that shows he actually loves it even if it isn’t his best work to date. Thanks to Cornish, though, The Kid Who Would Be King does its own thing, for better or worse.
Of course, any movie about a bunch of kids going on an adventure lives and breathes on the child actors. The lead four of Kid are up for the task, though I wouldn’t call any of their performances revelatory. Both Serkis and Chaumoo deliver their lines with the kind of childhood overacting that actually endears you to the performance but isn’t actually all that good. Cornish is pretty skilled at pulling out something from young actors and you can see it here as well. There are times where things get a little hamfisted but he’s always able to pull things back in for his young actors. Imrie steals the show, for the most part, playing young Merlin with an exuberance that befits the film he is in. Meanwhile, Stewarts older Merlin is mostly just brought in as a fun cameo when something serious needs to be said.
The Kid Who Would Be King is a rare breed in this day and age of sequels, remakes, and nostalgia cash-ins. It’s a movie that feels almost entirely fresh, even if it doesn’t work all the time. See, it isn’t the base concepts that need to be original, as Kid borrows heavily from its forebears, but the heart. That’s where the film shines for nearly all of its run. The tale of family and friendship running through the backside of the movie underneath the adventure is that magic in all the classic 80s films. It’s not the big set pieces or the grand adventure that creates the magic, but the story of a group of friends being friends. When you’re a kid that’s the entire world and when you’re an adult that’s magic.