“The Kid Who Would Be King” looks to two stories for inspiration. The fantasy film from director Joe Cornish finds its framework in the legend of King Arthur and the goofy camaraderie of “The Goonies.”
The story begins in the fifth century with Arthur proving his status as “the true king” of Britain by pulling the sword Excalibur from a stone. A warrior and creator of the Knights of the Round Table he is brave and popular with everyone except his sister Morgana. The powerful enchantress wanted power for herself and was summarily banished to the underworld where she could do no harm. Vowing to return, “when hearts are empty and the world is lost” and take back control of Excalibur, she languishes for hundreds of years, ineffective and lost. “Soon darkness will dawn and my time will come,” she says, optimistically.
Cut to today’s London. The world is a mess, “as unstable as it has ever been.” Things are so bad the headline of the Daily Star simply reads, ”GLOOMY.” In this world Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), a young lad just “twelve winters old,” and his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) try and do the right thing at school, mainly stand up to bullies like the mean spirited Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Doris). Alex is a sweet and sensitive kid. So much so that even his teacher pushes him to get a little more cynical. “It’s a tough world out there and it is getting tougher all the time. It’s not the world that has to change, it’s you.”
Chased to a construction site by some bullies a terrified Alex finds Excalibur embedded in an old chunk of concrete. Pulling the sword from the stone he defends himself from Lance and Kaye and awakens Morgana from her slumber. “Find the new King,” she commands. “The sword must be mine. The new king must die.”
A fight is a foot but Alex will not enter the battle with Morgana and her army of undead soldiers alone. At his side are Bedders, some school friends and Merlin the Magician, an ancient entity who appears in the form of a classmate. “I am a perfectly normal, contemporary British schoolboy,” he announces before morphing into an owl and flying away. Together they have just four days until a solar eclipse plunges the world into darkness and welcomes the return of Morgana. “This is the best and worst, the most excellent and frightening thing that has ever happened to me,” squeals Bedders.
Just as Lord Tennyson modified the Arthurian legends to comment on the issues of his day “The Kid Who Would Be King” places the story in a topsy-turvy world where the spectre of Brexit and Trump dominate the news. Like the old school retellings of the tale it values good over evil. It brims with important messages for kids—the most worthwhile path is rarely the easiest, embrace the things that are important to you—and offers an optimistic view of the future. “A land is only as good as its leaders,” says Merlin (played as an older magician by Patrick Stewart), and you’ll make excellent leaders.”
“The Kid Who Would Be King” is a good-natured, if puffed-up adventure for kids but at two hours and ten minutes it feels long and occasionally repetitive. Kids may enjoy the imaginative battle scenes—trees come to life as sparring partners for the wannabe warriors, etc—and the charming “Goonies” chemistry between the heroes but Rebecca Ferguson is wasted as the underwritten villainess Morgana and the CGI looks like a relic from another time.