Joe Cornish makes a soft return to cinema after an eight-year absence with “The Kid Who Would Be King.” His debut “Attack the Block” (2011) was a gut-punch of science fiction grit that pits teen street gangs against a swarm of alien invaders. Also serving as a career launchpad for John Boyega, the low-budget genre film demonstrates the collective maturity of adolescent survival instinct. This time, the fantasy action trades extra terrestrials for an army of the undead. Cornish resurrects the famed “King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table” legend and gives it a scholastic contemporary update. With Andy Serkis’s son Louis Ashburne Serkis donning the helm of leadership against a rising ancient evil, England’s youth get their shot at saving a troubled world.
“The Kid Who Would Be King” goes through the conventional rituals of building its young Excalibur-wielder into a hero for the people. In this case, that means climbing the social ladder of grade school with the help of some medieval magic. Serkis’ Alex Elliot is a regular kid who practices altruism at the expense of his popularity. His best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) is a constant target for notorious bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Doris). The script doesn’t explore the impetus behind this path of cruelty, nor are their eventual morality shifts provided much reasoning. If the lesson is to follow King Arthur’s shining example of turning foe into friend, why not show these young adversaries the error of their ways instead of bribing them with an epic quest?
The underwritten villainy continues with Rebecca Ferguson as Morgana, Arthur’s scorned half-sister who sold her soul to witchcraft and dark magic centuries earlier. Morgana is basically a bootleg version of “Thor: Ragnarok’s” Hera, played with none of the campy vivacity of the great Cate Blanchett. This is another unfortunate instance of Ferguson being at the mercy of one-dimensional characterization. However, her demonic transformation is freakishly effective thanks to some incredible work from visual effects supervisor Frazer Churchill and his team of artists. The climactic battle even draws parallels to the iconic showdown between Prince Phillip and a dragon-morphed Maleficent from 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty.”
The true delight is seeing fan-favorite wizard Merlin live up to his beloved reputation. Acting as a vessel of inspiration out of desperation for Alex and his allies, Merlin dons a youthful appearance upon entering the modern day. His teenage self is played by extraordinary find Angus Imrie, who exudes flamboyant marvel and endearing tenaciousness. Although he’s masking as a kid, Imrie’s performance hopefully motivates other children to swing through their formative years without falling victim to the pressures of personality containment. Extending an extra credit line of goodwill is the true form of Merlin, played by the revered Patrick Stewart. Regaling his young audience – onscreen and off — with avuncular advice that empowers the current generation, Stewart’s Merlin is the only backseat driver ever worth listening to. Merlin’s two-actor balance is the most enchanting part of an otherwise lackluster family film.
Laborious in its ethical sermonizing, “The Kid Who Would Be King” piggybacks the groundbreaking deconstruction of “the chosen one” archetype found in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” but forgets the crucial element that made it resonant: characters who matter. At one point, Alex compares his hero’s journey to Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter, yet he lacks the dynamic struggles that earned them viewer respect. There’s this assumption now with screenwriting that if a protagonist does good things, he should automatically be deemed interesting and subsequently idolized. This arrogant assumption is weakened when said hero contradicts the values he supposedly upholds.
In “The Kid Who Would Be King,” all knights must follow a specific honor code to be worthy of defeating Morgana and her forces. Despite briefly reflecting on the mistreatment of his single mother (Denise Gough), Alex never acknowledges his complicity in magic as a means of deception. Instead of utilizing humanistic connection to rouse his peers to action, Alex supplants this with Merlin’s powers of persuasion. Moreover, unlike the tangible threat in recent kid-friendly fare like “A Wrinkle in Time” or “Power Rangers,” the impending evil here only exists in an alternate realm. The adults vanish when night falls and the demons come afoot, lowering the stakes since it has no impact in reality. The children might as well avoid such stress by focusing their efforts on tearing down the wall of division that begins at home and exacerbates on the playground.
While well-intentioned and moderately progressive in its messaging, “The Kid Who Would Be King” isn’t the auteur comeback many were hoping for. Joe Cornish’s work here is seamlessly directed — with a bustling score by Electric Wave Bureau that elevates some shoddy action segments — but there’s a void of narrative risk-taking that runs rampant in his first feature. Although parents might perceive otherwise, sometimes coloring outside the lines expands young minds into viewing morality as something deeper than a rigid set of guidelines.