Director: Joe Cornish
Cast: Louis Ashbourne-Serkis, Dean Chaumoo, Angus Imrie, Patrick Stewart, and Rebecca Ferguson
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They don’t make films like The Kid Who Would Be King anymore. Sure, they’re still making plenty of King Arthur films, ranging from Guy Ritchie’s 2017 franchise non-starter Legend of the Sword to the upcoming Disney+ remake of The Sword In The Stone, but Joe Cornish’s modern re-telling of Arthurian legend feels destined to be fondly remembered.
The titular kid is Alex (Louis Ashbourne-Serkis), who happens across Excalibur, embedded in a rock at a construction site in London. Soon after, he is accosted by a teenaged version of the legendary wizard Merlin (Angus Imrie), who tells him he must defeat the evil witch Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson). Together with his best friend, Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), and school bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Doris), Alex must get to grips with his unlikely role in Arthurian mythology in time to save the world from eternal darkness.
Eight years on, Cornish’s long-awaited follow-up to Attack The Block isn’t necessarily a million miles away from the grounded 80s-throwback genre film that made his name as a feature filmmaker. Progressive, imaginative, and genre-literate, his films show his faith in today’s kids, represented by younger characters than we’re used to seeing in either alien invasion flicks or King Arthur movies.
Just like his last film, the casting here is absolutely exceptional. Playing the giddily adventurous best mates to a tee, young leads Ashbourne-Serkis and Chaumoo carry the film ably with their adorable comic chemistry, forming a likeable Frodo and Sam tribute act.
But as it turns out, it’s Imrie’s Merlin who steals the show. Alternating with Patrick Stewart as his older counterpart, this preposterous kid plays a blinder as the mighty wizard who’s confined to the body of a clumsy and awkward adolescent. True to Attack The Block’s star-making form, you get the feeling that at least two out of the three main kids have a part in Star Wars or Doctor Who in their future.
Terrific performances aside, it’s Cornish’s sincerity that makes this reimagining sing. It’s a shame that this didn’t do better in cinemas, but that may be because the film’s vision of kids saving a “lost and leaderless” Britain was widely billed by reviewers as a Brexit-era fantasy – a mealy, undeserved label that’s somehow ambiguous enough to turn off both Leavers and Remainers.
While the contemporary subtext is definitely in there, the film’s worthy, excitingly dramatised moral of working together in the face of adversity is nothing to do with politics. Cornish’s script is both timeless and true to the original Round Table spirit that gets lost in many other cinematic versions of the story. Similarly, a subplot about Alex trying to join the dots between his adventure and his absent father resolves itself in a manner much more fitting for a forward-thinking adaptation.
There are moments where it seems to feel a little breathless, particularly in the contrivance that gives us oscillating Merlins. If you can have Patrick Stewart in your film then you should have him, by all means, but it does feel like Imrie handles it perfectly well on his own without a more typical version of the character bobbing in and out.
Elsewhere, the two-hour running time accommodates a baggy mid-section yet squanders the chance to develop Ferguson’s raspy enchantress as more of a threat. The film is far from perfect, but frankly, these would be bigger problems in a film that wasn’t so easy to love. Despite being grossly underappreciated in cinemas, The Kid Who Would Be King feels purpose-built to run forever on telly during the school holidays. Backed by a clever and generous script, some instantly iconic performances, and a brilliantly retro adventure score from Electric Wave Bureau, this has the ring of a once and future classic.