Arguably the smartest thing about Joe Cornish’s delightful new movie The Kid Who Would Be King is that while others have simply tried straight remakes of the familiar legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, Cornish’s film opens the tale up, repurposes it for the present day and modern conflict, and in doing so crafts a story that’s thoughtful, funny, cute, and charming for both kids and adults. Rather than lean on the narrative of a “Chosen One” who is special because of his birth or station, The Kid Who Would Be King empowers its young audience to recognize the Chivalric Code of King Arthur and how they can be heroes and leaders for a fractured world.
Alex Elliott (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is a 12-year-old who stands up to bullies like Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris) to protect his friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) despite an inability to fight. While being chased by Lance and Kaye as retaliation for getting them in detention, Alex scurries into a construction site where he draws a sword from a stone. This brings him the aid of Merlin (Angus Imrie) who tells Alex and Bedders that dead soldiers led by the evil sorceress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) threaten to overrun the Earth unless Alex can put together his own team of knights and defeat Morgana. Despite his young age and inexperience, Alex must become a leader and turn his enemies into allies if he hopes to stop evil from overrunning the world.
As he showed with his classic 2011 film Attack the Block, Cornish has a knack for blending the mundane with the fantastical with underdogs as his protagonists. But Cornish bends the King Arthur legend to an exciting new angle by arguing that it’s not about Alex, who’s being raised by a single mom, being descended from great men (he doesn’t even know his father), but rather by Alex’s behavior and devotion to honor, honesty, and embodying the best traits of what made Arthur a hero. Rather than simply saying that Alex is good because he’s descended from King Arthur, The Kid Who Would Be King shows that the Arthurian legend is good because of how it’s represented by Alex, which makes for a far more compelling protagonist.
We’ve seen that others have strained at adapting old British legends like King Arthur and Robin Hood to make them hip and relevant, but Cornish digs deeper and uses Arthurian legend, specifically Arthur turning his enemies into allies, as a story about our divided era. While Brexit immediately springs to mind due to the British setting, it’s a story that feels incredibly relevant worldwide as authoritarians seek to divide and conquer for their own power. That may seem incredibly heavy for what’s ostensibly a children’s adventure movie, but Cornish trusts his young audience to be the heroes and leaders of tomorrow, so he doesn’t shy away from imparting an important lesson.
Thankfully, the film never feels preachy or pedantic because of the upbeat and fun tone. Imrie gives a scene-stealing performance as the young Merlin (the older version being played by an always-game Patrick Stewart giving the film a little of his gravitas) with his lanky frame and odd behavior as a man out of time. But the movie really belongs to its four young lead actors who provide the heart and humor that has you rooting for them every step of the way. The Kid Who Would Be King has no shortage of charm, and you always feel invested in the journey.
There are a few brief moments when the film drags a bit and an anticlimactic fake-out near the climax makes the film feel like it has to restart a bit to reach the end, but these are small qualms against one of the best kids’ adventure movies in recent memory. It’s a genre that has largely been abandoned as kids just head to PG-13 superhero movies, but it’s good that there’s a film like The Kid Who Would Be King for pre-teens who not only want to go on a fun quest, but will feel ready to take on a divided world as a result.