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The Kid Who Would Be King

Well, folks, this is it. In all probability, this could be the very last year in which we see a movie open with the iconic searchlights and trumpet fanfare of the 20th Century Fox logo. Raise a glass for the end of an era.

A couple years back, Warner Bros. hired Guy Ritchie to direct an adaptation of King Arthur and they tried to spin it into a franchise. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword turned out to be an embarrassing mess by any standard, among the worst commercial flops and most infamous critical failures of the year. But while the movie was quickly banished to obscurity, remembered only as a terrible mistake never to be thought or spoken of again, it’s not like the movie itself was a bad idea. The tale of King Arthur is a perennial legend for a reason, and we could certainly use a fresh retelling right now.

Why? Well, The Kid Who Would Be King makes a compelling argument from pretty much the word go.

Here we have a modern reworking of the King Arthur myth, set against the backdrop of the modern day. At a time when Britain is tearing itself apart, falling into confusion and turmoil over Brexit. To say nothing of political divisions, rampant bigotry, and fearmongering tyrants taking power all over the world. What better time for a hero to rise among us, turn enemies into allies, unite us all, and lead us forward?

Thus we have this new retelling in which Alexander Elliot (played by Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy) learns to take his place as the unlikely heir to Excalibur and successor of King Arthur. Unlikely because he’s twelve years old, you see. It’s a strong thematic point that our main characters are kids, because they’ll be the ones who inherit our world, and they’ll be responsible for fixing the messes their parents and grandparents have made. So why the hell are we teaching our kids to be just as callous, greedy, and dishonest as we are?!

Repeatedly, Alexander and his friends are told that the world is cruel and tough and unfair, like that’s the way things have always been and there’s no point in trying to change it. The filmmakers issue a full-throated rejection of that notion. The world needs those with courage — who will always fight for truth and do the right thing — because they’re not just capable of building a better world, they’re also the only ones who can!

This is truly an empowering and uplifting movie, especially for kids, precisely because the filmmakers are so damn passionate about fighting to build a better world. Moreover, the movie makes absolutely no apology or excuse about being a movie in which modern-day kids wield actual swords and armor against demons and magic. The filmmakers are so committed to the premise, leaning so hard into this fantasy/comedy/adventure that the silliness goes right back around to being awesome.

Of course, our cast and characters are a huge factor. Alexander is your preteen everyman, struggling for a reason to believe — against his better judgment — that all of this is real and he truly is capable of more than everyone says he is. We’ve also got Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), a cowardly bully target who learns how to grow a spine. Then there’s Lance (Tom Taylor), an unrepentant bully dead-set on looking out for number one until he learns to set his ego aside and fight for something greater. Last but not least is Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), Lance’s partner in bullying until she finally learns that she doesn’t have to be as cruel as she was told the world is.

(Side note: Guinevere never gets so much as a single mention. I wonder if Kaye might have been Guinevere in an earlier draft, with a kind of love triangle going on between Alex and Lance. Thinking through the implications of two kids knowing that they’re fated to be together because of similarities with the established myth, it’s probably for the best that she was omitted altogether.)

Yes, these arcs are all predictable and cliched. Even so, they’re written, performed, and paced so beautifully that every single arc works. It really was a joy to watch these kids grow into characters worth cheering for. And again, it works because the cast and crew are fully and totally committed to every last story beat.

Another fine example is Rebecca Ferguson as Morgana, our chief antagonist. She plays a dark sorceress trapped under the earth until she can take over the world with her undead soldiers and her skill at exploiting the weaknesses and insecurities of others. If Ferguson had tried to underplay a role like that, it would’ve been disastrous. So instead, she swings for the fences and goes full-on camp, resulting in a genuinely imposing villain who’s a lot of fun to hate. Then again, it bears mentioning that Ferguson was pretty much entirely absent through the action scenes, replaced by a CGI monstrosity that Morgana transforms into. Waste of a perfectly good Mission: Impossible star, if you ask me.

Likewise, I was disappointed to see that Sir Patrick Stewart shares the role of Merlin with a teenager named Angus Imrie. Not that Imrie is awful or anything — indeed, he’s perfectly fine as a centuries-old wizard in the body of a teenaged boy, and that’s no mean feat. Even so… come on. This is Sir Patrick Stewart playing Merlin. Do I even need to explain why we need a whole movie of that?

(Side note: I’m amused upon the recollection that Stewart had a small role in Excalibur before playing the big mentor role here. That’s kind of like when Bryan Cranston got to play Zordon in 2017.)

Speaking of which, I was rather fond of Merlin’s magic. Basically, he weaves spells through lots of complicated hand gestures, waving, and finger-snapping. It looks really cool in action. Even so, I didn’t like how the rules of this particular universe were so arbitrary. Merlin is a teenager, except when he changes back for whatever reason. Merlin can’t show himself at night, for whatever reason. Only Alex and his knights can fight Morgana, for whatever reason. There are other examples. Still, while the rules may be arbitrary, they are at least consistent, so this isn’t really a dealbreaker so much as it’s a persistent annoyance.

Then we have the action scenes. I’m glad that the filmmakers found some neat variety in the fight scenes, and some genuinely clever moments in places. The “training montage” against mobile trees was a particular favorite. It also helps that while our fiery undead soldiers are imposing and great in numbers, they’re still made of centuries-old dessicated bones and are appropriately brittle. Thus our disposable foot soldiers are badass enough to make tangible threats, yet fragile enough that teenagers could plausibly defeat them, and they explode real nice when they’re defeated. I approve.

On a final miscellaneous note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Denise Gough as Alex’s mother. She provides a grounded and sensible counterpoint to all the madness going on, while also serving as a kind and loving mother to Alex. It’s a sweet performance of a nice character, helping to give the movie heart without subtracting from the high fantasy madness.

All told, I had a wonderful time with The Kid Who Would Be King. It’s a straightforward fantasy romp that pays loving tribute to the legends of old, while also stressing the importance of why legends need to be updated and told anew. It’s an exciting, creative, uplifting movie with a strong beating heart. It’s great to see a movie so unapologetically silly and fun, both engaging and inspirational. Definitely check this one out.

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