The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★
On paper, “The Kid Who Would Be King” is corny: a boy who is constantly bulled at school discovers that not only is he a direct lineage of King Arthur of Camelot, he is destined to stop a sorceress (Rebecca Ferguson), imprisoned underground for centuries, from enslaving the entire planet. However, writer-director Joe Cornish consistently finds ways to retool and transform history and mythology in a way that is consistently entertaining. Kid- and family-friendly action-adventures from America could learn a thing or two from this familiar yet refreshing piece of work.
One could feel the writer-director’s love for children right from the get-go. It could have easily been a special and visual effects extravaganza first and foremost, human drama second. Instead, it is the other way around. Notice that despite the incredible developments—meeting an old wizard who is able to transform into a teenager, facing off with an army of fiery skeletons, fighting a dragon—the script always finds an opportunity to pull back and examine friendships, partnerships, relationship with self and family. At the same time, these are never saccharine, simply a natural development of the story. This is a risk because slowing down in the middle of an action-packed journey could prove fatal in less capable hands. Cornish is willing to experiment.
The chosen one is named Alex and he is played with charm and fervor by Louis Ashbourne Serkis. Although the film is largely comic and cheeky, it is correct to cast a performer who can excel in drama because the center of the picture is how Alex relates to those around him: his mother (Denise Gough), his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), bullies-turned-allies Lance and Kate (Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris), and the magical Merlin (Angus Imrie, Patrick Stewart). On top of this, the actor must create a character who is impacted by an absence of a father figure. You see, there is plenty to unbox and it is surprising how the work rolls with the punches and continues to move forward without feeling the need to drive a point across using a sledgehammer.
Despite the dazzling CGI, what surprised me most is how Arthur and his knights are painted. In numerous family-oriented movies where the bullied and the bully are required to team up in order to achieve a common goal, once a bond is formed, no matter how tenuous, it is a straight shot to the finish line. Not here.
I was so impressed that Alex and Bedders are constantly challenged by Lance and Kaye for nearly half the picture. The fact that there is a struggle among their team adds another layer of drama. It even has time to bring up the idea that maybe Lance and Kay are the way they are simply because they are older than Alex and Bedders, thus having experienced the world a little more. They do have a point when they claim that the world is far from a nice place. In other words, Arthur’s knights are not robotic allies; the script has ways of reminding us that they have a mind of their own. However, out of the four, I wish that Bedders had been given more opportunities to shine. His “magic tricks,” mainly serving as comic relief, only go so far.
“The Kid Who Would Be King” is the kind of film that most children would be enraptured by. Yes, there are the usual action sequences that keeps the material moving, but more important, I think, are its messages regarding empowerment, particularly during the second half. It is optimistic and it wishes to say that children can make a world of difference. On this topic, it is not subtle nor does it need to be. With so much junk entertainment aimed for kids, this film provides a better alternative.