THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING: Featured Knights

In general, I try to avoid reviewing films that seem to be specifically intended for children. It just does not seem that fair to me. There have been exceptions, of course. Last year, for instance, I reviewed GOOSEBUMPS 2 because the first GOOSEBUMPS ended up being such an unexpected delight. In the case of THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING , the pedigree of writer-director Joe Cornish lured me in. Besides making his feature directing debut with the excellent alien film ATTACK THE BLOCK, Cornish also wrote two surprisingly deft screenplays for Peyton Reed’s ANT-MAN and Steven Spielberg’s THE ADVENTURES OF TIN-TIN. With that kind of track record, I felt I owed his newest flick a look.

So, was I right?

THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING: Alex
Louis Ashbourne Serkis runs the street in a scene from THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

The Idea Behind THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING

Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, scion of Andy) is a pretty typical kid living in Central England. He and his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) have transitioned to a new school and find themselves towards the bottom of the social pecking order. No one loves to remind them of that inadequacy as much as Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), a duo of upperclassmen bullies. Alex loses his temper one day and sucker punches Lance, landing him in detention and worrying his single mom Mary (Denise Gough).

In order to evade Lance and Kaye’s revenge after said detention, Alex escapes to a construction site where he discovers a sword amongst the rubble of a failed housing complex. He is able to pull it free and, in short order, we learn that the allusions to the Sword in the Stone are no accident. Alex apparently is the modern successor to King Arthur.

Alex discovering his potential also awakens Merlin (Angus Imrie as a teen, Patrick Stewart, of course, as his more expected form) and Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson). Racing against Morgana’s emergence from the Earth to correspond with an eclipse, Merlin attempt to train Alex, get him to recruit some knights, and prepare to slay Morgana to save England, and likely the world, from servitude under the evil sorceress.

THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING: Morgana
Rebecca Ferguson commands the vines in a scene from THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

Writing THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING

The script does well with making the children feel like children. They do not feel overly precocious or too young for their age. Our late tweens/early teens are not just difficult to live through, but they are also hard to accurately capture in film. So, the fact that Cornish’s script captures this so well deserves notice.

Unfortunately, once the script steps away from Alex, Bedders, Lance, Kaye, and to a lesser extent, Merlin, it does little to populate its world. Mary is entirely Alex’s mom and even in that role she has blessedly little to do. Alex’s other classmates don’t have names, nevermind personalities. In some films, that can be just fine, but this movie’s climax involves recruiting the entire school and since we know none of them, we don’t care.

Lastly, and more disappointingly, the script gives Rebecca Ferguson so little to work with it feels criminal. Seriously.

While some of the characterization disappoints, one area the script excels is grounding the action in a recognizable, but not often seen, world. The people of THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING live what appear to be lower-middle-class existences. They live in small but nicely appointed connected condos in neighborhoods that feel lived in. Their school has uniforms, but there is not a sense of poshness to those wearing them. Too often, movies about Britain default to either poor blue-collar locales, effortlessly rich one, or, worst of all, royal spaces. That the script also takes place predominantly in what is not only the dominant class of people in England but also the least captured in movies for Americans. This detail is very appreciated.

THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING: Deadites
Morgana’s army is getting a bit overheated in THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

Casting The Lead of THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING

As noted above, the script does a nice job of writing barely adolescent characters in a way that feels accurate. However, if the actors could not speak the lines well, the script would be for naught. Thankfully, Serkis makes an agreeable protagonist. He seems a natural for the part, embodying the thrill of realizing you’re special, the fear that maybe you were wrong about that, and the eventual realization that being special can be a burden too.

Serkis renders him just specific enough to feel real but not so much so that the kids watching cannot relate or see themselves in him. He is thoughtful but impulsive, and prone to fear but capable of bravery. It’s just exactly the kind of performance you want in a family movie.

THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING: Merlin and Alex
Patrick Stewart and Louis Ashbourne Serkis embrace in a moment from THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

Casting the Rest of the Callsheet

Imrie and Stewart as the dueling Merlins is a nice touch. However, although the storyline ends with Merlin as a sort of father figure, it does not feel earned. That doesn’t mean that Stewart does not sell it. As the teen Merlin, Imrie has an appealingly quirky presence. He seems to be vibrating at his own frequency, which makes perfect sense for the character.

I appreciate the diversity of Alex’s three knights, but Chaumoo is the obvious standout amongst him. He was good enough to make me wish it was a movie about a South Asian descendant of Arthur and his white sidekick. Given that this is Chaumoo’s first ever acting role, I was extremely impressed.

As noted above Denise Gough and Rebecca Ferguson, both excellent in COLETTE and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT last year, are pretty wasted. They do fine with what they are given. However, it is hard to build a performance out of endless fretting as Gough is asked to do. Ferguson, in some ways, has it worse. Her part is larger, but she has few lines and spends much time as a CGI construct.

THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING: Knighting
Louis Ashbourne Serkis knights Dean Chaumoo in THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

Filming THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING

A lot of what I loved about Cornish’s work in ATTACK THE BLOCK — his use of space and shadow — is largely absent here. His compositions feel more generic here. He nails a shot now and then, but things feel more distant and flat, less immediate and involving.

That said, I like how he directed the actors. When it comes to magic in the film, Cornish captures what it feels like as a kid to play King Arthur in the backyard. The last kids movie I can remember doing that was SPY KIDS. I always think it is a good idea. If your movie is for kids, mirror the way they interact with the world.

THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING: Everybody
Tom Taylor, Dean Chaumoo, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Angus Imrie, and Rhianna Dorris get in formation. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

That’s a Wrap!

Overall, this is definitely a kids’ movie, not a crossover film. As a result, I think my review probably reads a bit harsh. However, THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING proves a solid way for parents and kids, 12 and under, to while away an afternoon.

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