WHAT IT'S ABOUT:Alexander Elliot is a normal twelve-year-old boy but when he stumbles across a sword in a stone while fleeing a couple of bullies, he finds himself caught in an adventure where the fate of the Earth itself hangs in balance. The sword in the stone is, in fact, the Sword in the Stone – Excalibur – and the threat is no less than the evil half-sister of Arthur himself, Morgana. Excalibur may have deemed Alex worthy but can he, a now-young Merlin and a ragtag group of child-knights come together to battle this ancient threat or will infighting destroy them before they even get the chance?
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
The legend of King Arthur and Camelot is the sort of tale that isn’t just timeless in the way it has resonated down the centuries but is pliable enough that it can be and has been adapted from a multitude of different perspectives. Whether it’s Marion Bradley Zimmer’ The Mists of Avalon where the tale is told through the perspective of the female characters, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court where a 19th century American boy finds himself transported to Camelot or T.H. White’s more traditional retelling of the Arthurian Legend, this particular story can be bent any which way and remains as effective as ever.
And why shouldn’t it? Here we have a story of chosen kings, brave knights, powerful sorcerers and wicked half-sisters brought together in a battle of good vs. evil that set the blueprint for so many stories of its ilk down the years. In a pop-cultural climate where we have a new superhero film coming out every month or so, why not have a retelling of one of the main inspirations (along with a number of biblical figures and pulp heroes) for the superhero in the first place?
For his first film since breaking through with 2011’s cult hit, Attack the Block, Joe Cornish has set out to do just that. Unfortunately, while Cornish is clearly an interesting filmmaker (though probably better a writer than director) and the story of King Arthur is as timeless and timely as ever, the two don’t quite mesh.
The Kid Who Would Be King is a perfectly decent take on the legend that effectively does a reverse Twain and brings Camelot to the present, rather than the other way around – not that this too hasn’t been done before – but for a story as epic as King Arthur’s and for a writer as quirky as Joe Cornish, “perfectly decent” isn’t quite good enough. There’s plenty to like here but there’s just not enough to truly love. Throw in some bland visuals, a woefully underdeveloped villain and an overly long and badly paced running-time and it’s hard not to be at least a little disappointed by a film that could have been a significant addition to the canon of Arthurian adaptations but instead will most likely go down as a fine but insignificant footnote.
On the plus side, the Kid Who Would Be King does have some of the unabashed earnestness of those great ‘80s adventure films and its moral of the importance of unity and the need for humanity to overcome its differences if we are to overcome whatever challenges the future (and present) holds for us, is undoubtedly a good one. It also features, among a somewhat variable cast, Louis Ashbourne Serkis (son of Andy) as our instantly likeable young hero, Alex, and both Sir Patrick Stewart and Angus Imrie (son of Celia) as a scene-stealing Merlin. According to Legend, you see, Merlin ages backwards so he is young by the time the 21st century rolls in, though he still occasionally appears as his old self in this particular adaptation for reasons that are never really explained but is clearly just an excuse to have the great Patrick Stewart in the mix. And, honestly, that is more than fair enough.
On the less than positive side, though, Rebecca Ferguson is wasted as Morgana/ Morgan Le Fey, one of the standout villains/ anti-heroes in literature but who is reduced here to little more than a faceless evil. Sadly, she doesn’t become any less faceless when she turns into an uninterestingly rendered dragon-like creature and her army of undead footsoldiers are let down by a uniformity of design and a lack of true menace. The film also has a massively unclimactic false-end that comes about two-thirds of the way through and then dawdles its way through another forty-minutes towards the proper finale that is solid enough – even if it does draw heavily from Buffy season 3, albeit with much better CGI and much less effectiveness.
The film’s biggest crime, though, is the flipside to its winning earnestness: a pervasive feeling of Cornish reining himself in to the detriment of the material. The Kid Who Would Be King has some decent emotional beats and a solid sense of adventure but it constantly feels like there’s a much quirkier and funnier film dying to break out; one that will add the necessary spark to paper over the film’s other flaws.
As it is, it’s not too difficult to recommend the film to younger audiences, especially, but those of us looking for a King Arthur retelling with a bit more with and invention, it’s hard to not be disappointed.