By: Steve Pulaski
Perhaps it's the same masochistic force that compels me to actively seek out independently made Christian films that makes me cautiously excited to watch the latest in live-action, young adult entertainment at my local multiplex. Be it the umpteenth and ordinarily insufferable sequel to Diary of a Wimpy Kid or the more curious but ultimately deflated Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, I keep on anticipating the next Big Fat Liar or a theatrical release that is at least up to par with the TV movies from Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network I remember from my own childhood. It's this kind of optimism that allows me to embrace a film like The Kid Who Would Be King unironically and hope I won't emerge disgusted or disappointed.
While bound to elicit groans and eye-rolls from souls who let their inner-child die a long time ago, The Kid Who Would Be King is an earnest adventure with a lot of charisma and imagination. Instead of caricaturing the youthful experience, it recreates it in the context of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in an initially questionable but laudable fashion. It amalgamates the tween-centered charmers of the 1980s with ancient mythology in a film that's impressively not beholden to empty nostalgia. Instead, it's an admirable movie that just wants to instill a little hope in the newest generation that they have a chance to make a big impact.
The film revolves around Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy), a young boy who simply wants to hold up his now-absent father's ideology that doing the right thing and telling the truth will never bring a person more trouble. However, living in England, his philosophy is brought down by a troubled society rocked by political instability and a feeling of hopelessness amongst his peers. Alex's last straw comes when he stands up to bullies but is still the one punished for fighting. His whole mentality changes when he winds up at a construction site and extracts a sword from a block of concrete. Believing it is a quest straight out of Arthurian mythology, he rounds up his best-pal Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) along with two bullies, Lance and Kaye (Tom Taylor and Rhianna Dorris), on the basis that bringing people together is more important than driving each other apart, to fight against Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson). Morgana is King Arthur's half-sister, who promised to return and take back the sword, known as Excalibur, and now that it's in possession of a measly group of kids, it should be all too easy.
Alex and his friends are aided by Merlin (Angus Imrie), a wise old wizard who takes the form of a teenager and enrolls at Alex's school shortly after he and Bedders retrieve Excalibur. Sometimes, he's a lanky, awkward teenager who clicks his fingers and snaps his hands to hypnotize people for his control. Other instances call for him to show his age and become Patrick Stewart, who looks like a live-action Rick from Rick and Morty, only with more mannered and inspiring rants.
Cornish, the man behind the cult favorite Attack the Block, flexes his muscles this time around by drawing from legends and focusing on empowering young people to make a difference. Much of the time, I'd cite this as simple, empty pandering of age-old ideas, but Cornish's story has a refreshing honesty — one that never gets in the way of the story, which is too well-structured to deviate and become a morality play. Like his 2011 debut, Cornish, too, handles live-action spectacle particularly well. He can be lightning fast, but his pacing and spatial awareness is all sharp, assuring we can be immersed in the mayhem as opposed to being at the mercy of it. I can only believe that to achieve the clarity and crispness in some scenes, Cornish had to employ a camera with 4K resolution (which might justify the occasional motion blur during some of the panning shots).
He also brings out the best in a relatively inexperienced cast. Louis Ashbourne Serkis won us over with his vocal talents as the sympathetic Bhoot in Netflix's Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (directed by his father), but now we get to see the talented 15-year-old in front of the camera doing his own dance. Simply put, he's going to be around for quite a while, and I hope the same for the plucky and endlessly likable Dean Chaumoo.
The Kid Who Would Be King is zealous but not corny in its empowerment of teenagers. It tables a great deal of moral do-gooding to put the story first while insidiously opening the door for the new generation to read up on King Arthur and related mythology. Even if the young adult film genre brings more lemons than lemonade, at least every now and then, a sweet, sincere project like this emerges.