THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING. Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Dean Chaumoo, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Doris, Angus Imrie, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart. Directed by Joe Cornish. 120 minutes. Rated PG (Mild fantasy themes and violence, some scenes may scare young children).
If you’ve never heard of King Arthur or any of the accoutrements that usually accompany his legend (the Round Table, Merlin and so on), then you’re probably young enough to constitute the target audience for ‘The Kid Who Would Be King’. Sadly though, the film will likely leave the same demographic wanting, due to its slow narrative and flat aesthetics. This is a disappointing sophomore effort from Joe Cornish, the writer-director responsible for 2011’s excellent horror-comedy ‘Attack the Block’, and one wonders whether his talents would not be better spent building out original ideas, rather than trying to update those stories that we’ve already seen time and time again.
An animated overture gives a tidy summary of the traditional Arthurian legend. In the aftermath of King Arthur’s battle with the evil sorceress Morgana, she is banished to the bowels of the Earth until Britain is “lost and leaderless” and she can rise to power once more. As the camera pulls out of the animation, its source is revealed to be a picture book stored in the attic of one Alex Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), who lives with his single mother (Denise Gough) somewhere in London. Alex is a regular British schoolkid who dwells somewhere near the bottom of his school’s food chain with his trusty pal Bedders (Dean Chaumoo). Despite having the level of interest in domestic politics and world affairs of a regular 13-year-old boy, Alex knows that something is not quite right with the world or with Britain. As an on-the-nose number of newscasts remind viewers, the United Kingdom of today could indeed be considered “lost and leaderless”.
One day, while Alex is running from regular bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Doris), he stumbles into a building site, where he comes across a sword embedded in – you guessed it – a stone. Alex pulls the blade out (a feat rendered slightly less impressive when we haven’t seen anyone else try and fail) and takes it home. During the night, an undead medieval warrior rises from Alex’s backyard, rendered in CGI realistic enough to give some of the youngsters the willies. However, a strange new boy from Alex’s school called Mertin (Angus Imrie) appears in his bedroom to defeat the knight, displaying remarkable knowledge of Alex’s recent find and this scary new development. Of course, he’s not really Mertin, but rather the centuries-old wizard Merlin (Patrick Stewart) in a youthful form that he can take at will. He fills Alex in on the pertinent facts: Alex will have to defeat Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) before a solar eclipse takes place in four days’ time, lest she use her dark magic to seize control of Britain once more.
The appearance of Mertin/Merlin enlivens the movie after a flat start, largely thanks to the self-assured turn from Angus Imrie. Imrie combines the impish cheekiness of his mother (the actress Celia Imrie) with an otherworldly weirdness, and he breathes life and lightness into what could have been a cringeworthy character. On the flipside though, Imrie’s presence only serves to underline how boring young Ashbourne Serkis and Chaumoo’s roles are, though they give it their all. Neither actor is gifted a particularly intriguing character to work with; Alex and Bedders are weary beyond their years (for some reason) and lack any semblance of youthful spirit. Ashbourne Serkis is an earnest presence, and although his work (and that of Gough) helps sell a late emotional beat tied to their developing mother-son relationship through the movie, this quality doesn’t do much to convey what might have been the joyous escapism of living a Dungeons & Dragons-like adventure in real life. For much of the film’s two hours though, it all just feels like a slog.
After school the next day, Alex is explaining his plight to Bedders when the pair are cornered by Lance and Kaye. Rather than Alex convinces the bullies to join his cause instead and knights them, and before you can say “Excalibur” the foursome are off on a jaunt around the British Isles to vanquish the evil stirring beneath their homeland’s soil. The plot eventually builds towards a showdown packed with potential, with Morgana and her undead army descending en masse upon Alex’s school to take on an army of schoolchildren, whom Alex has rallied to his cause. The school setting provides ample opportunity for cool little moments throughout the set piece (like a handful of pommel horses being used as battering rams), but it’s too little too late by this point.
The children in this script readily cite pop culture giants like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, yet this self-awareness only draws attention to the lack of imagination in Cornish’s screenplay. Where ‘Attack the Block’ was innovative and surprising in both concept and plotting, ‘The Kid Who Would Be King’ is at best mildly interesting in the former and just plain dull in the latter. None of this is helped by its lame attempts at humour, which failed to raise much of a murmur in my afternoon screening. Furthermore, there’s not a single memorable shot in the entire production, despite boasting the talented Bill Pope as cinematographer (who also shot ‘The Matrix’ and Edgar Wright’s last three features). As his CV suggests, Pope knows how to work with special effects, but even Morgana’s occasional transformations into an ugly serpent-like dragon look fake and unappealing in a way that belies his credentials.
It’s not all bad news though. There’s a cool, chameleonic score from British music collective, Electric Wave Bureau, that ekes out some excitement from the proceedings, and some moments show hints of the rousing entertainment that this might have been with a radical rewrite. At its heart though, ‘The Kid Who Would Be King’ fails to be the old-fashioned family friendly romp that it clearly aspires to. It never approaches the odd, frenetic energy that marked the majority family films that came out toward the end of last century. It’s too long and dully plotted, as though Cornish has forgotten everything regularly discussed about the fleeting attention spans of today’s kids (hard to believe, considering his contribution to the terrific scripts of ‘Ant-Man’ and ‘The Adventures of Tintin’). The kid might be royalty, but this movie doesn’t deserve a spot anywhere on the throne.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out January 17.
20th Century Fox.