Conventional wisdom tells us that the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is an utterly timeless one. Certainly, when The Kid Who Would Be King begins with a handsomely animated whistle-stop retelling of that story, there’s a comforting familiarity to the tale. And with Attack the Block director Joe Cornish finally behind the camera again after seven years, the signs were good that this was going to be something very special.
Sadly, there’s something here that just doesn’t quite work. Cornish has stated that his intention was to hark back to the work of Steven Spielberg and his Amblin films. Movies for children seldom feature actual human youngsters, he has argued, and exist almost entirely in animation. It’s a fair point and one that The Kid Who Would Be King dispels immediately by introducing young hero Alex (Louis Ashbourne ‘Son of Andy’ Serkis).
Running away from school bullies Lance (Tom Taylor, looking like an angry Russell Howard) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), Alex stumbles into a housing development that seems to play host to a sword wedged into a bit of concrete. This coincides with the arrival of odd new boy Mertin (Angus ‘son of Celia’ Imrie) at school and soon Alex believes he is descended from King Arthur and is now wielding the true Excalibur.
This is a movie Cornish first conceived of during his childhood, but it is given a timely twist by the intriguing suggestion that the current divisions within the UK and the planet as a whole have empowered the dark sorceress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) to rise from her underground purgatory. Newspaper headlines in the first act simply declare “WAR” and “GLOOM”, while Imrie’s wizard – in case you didn’t spot him through the cunningly disguised name – describes Britain as “divided, lost and leaderless” in one of his rousing pep talks.
Merlin is perhaps the film’s highlight, segeuing from Imrie to an owl to Patrick Stewart seemingly at random. He revitalises himself after magic exertion by eating cheap fried chicken – it contains the right combination of animal bones, beetle blood and beaver urine apparently – and performs his spells via a weird series of hand movements that resemble the bizarre close-up tricks of a street magician.
Serkis, too, is solid and dependable in the lead role, but there’s a sense throughout that something is missing. Every time you pull out a constituent part, it sounds like it should work, but the eventual mixture is stodgy and unsatisfying. The family drama between Alex and his single mother (Denise Gough) is underbaked and takes up far too much screen time, while the structure is uneven, sapping some of the momentum from the admirably inventive schoolyard siege that forms the final conflict. It doesn’t help that Ferguson’s Morgana barely registers a threat, spending most of her time growling under bits of tree.
In the wake of a fair amount of positive characteristics, it’s difficult to discern why it is that The Kid Who Would Be King often feels so flat. The sense of humour and genuine connection between the characters that powered Cornish’s Attack the Block is certainly absent, perhaps as a side effect of focusing on generically affluent schoolkids rather than the inner city teens of his 2011 movie. There are flashes of that Cornish flair and moments of impressive comedy, but every grasp for pathos finds only empty space.
It’s also easy to conclude that part of the problem is that Arthurian subject matter. The last adaptation of that legend – Guy Ritchie’s geezery King Arthur: Legend of the Sword – was a tedious experience, but even that was a picnic compared to Transformers: The Last Knight the same year. Perhaps this particular timeless story is finally showing its age, no matter how many Patrick Stewart cameos you throw at it.
Dir: Joe Cornish
Scr: Joe Cornish
Cast: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Dean Chaumoo, Angus Imrie, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, Denise Gough, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart, Noma Dumezweni
Prd: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nira Park
DOP: Bill Pope
Music: Electric Wave Bureau
Run time: 120 mins
The Kid Who Would Be King is in UK cinemas now.