Ever since I saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the age of 13, it has ruined all other movies about King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table for me. Every time I hear some actor say, “Camelot!” in those reverential tones, I reflexively think, “It’s only a model,” and I giggle to myself. I tell you this so that when I say The Kid Who Would Be King is the first such film that I didn’t find unintentionally funny, you can sense just what an achievement that is for this delightful family movie.
This is the creation of Joe Cornish, the British filmmaker who made a splash back in 2011 with his science-fiction comedy Attack the Block, which starred a pre-Star Wars John Boyega and a pre-Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker. That movie drew its power from its specific Britishness and its commentary on race relations in that country. This film is just as specifically British, as it begins with the sorceress Morgana le Fay (Rebecca Ferguson), who was imprisoned by Merlin (Patrick Stewart) a thousand years ago, coming back to life in the present day and preparing to enslave the country now that it’s divided against itself. The script never mentions Brexit, but it’s totally about Brexit.
At the same time, a 12-year-old London boy named Alexander Elliott (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, the son of Andy Serkis) is running away from two school bullies (Tom Taylor and Rhianna Dorris) when he stumbles into a construction site where he finds a sword embedded in a stone. Once he pulls it out, Merlin reincarnates as a teenager (Angus Imrie) at Alex’s school, informing the kid that he’s meant to lead a group of brave knights to stop Morgana.
Cornish’s sensibility is completely modern, so Alex and his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) use the Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings movies as cues while they go about their quest. The writer-director finds some great comic inspiration in the young Merlin failing to blend in with the other schoolkids as he spouts 12th-century English in a way-too-intense manner. (The tall, spindly newcomer Imrie is the standout in this young cast.) Who can resist the sight of Merlin working at a fried-chicken joint and direly prophesying the end of the world while holding up a half-eaten drumstick? Another nice comic touch: Stewart spends his entire time onscreen wearing a Led Zeppelin t-shirt.
It does seem a bit too easy how Alex, in following Arthur’s example, convinces the bullies to join his quest as a way of uniting his enemies. (What did I tell you? Brexit!) Still, Cornish knows how to balance action sequences like a giant climactic showdown at his school with more character-driven things like Alex finding out that his mother (Denise Gough) has been lying to him about his absent father. The Kid Who Would Be King may not be as awesome as Attack the Block, but it’s shot through with Cornish’s brand of wisdom. When the quest takes a different path from the one laid out in Alex’s children’s book about King Arthur, an aged Merlin appears to him and says, “Legends are rumors whispered down the centuries, often by the rich and powerful so they can keep hold of what they have.” Preach, Merlin!
The Kid Who Would Be King
Starring Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Dean Chaumoo, and Patrick Stewart. Written and directed by Joe Cornish. Rated PG.