Any man who says 'I am King' is no true king.
The Kid Who Would Be King is directed and written by Joe Cornish and stars Louis Ashborne Serkis, Tom Taylor, Rebecca Ferguson, and Patrick Stewart.
For some odd reason that I can't put my finger on, 21st century cinema has not been kind to the medieval legends of King Arthur. To my knowledge, only three major films have been released in American cinema over the past twenty some years that directly deal with the tales of King Arthur, the legendary sword Excalibur, and the Knights of the Round Table. The first being the 2004, Antonine Fuqua-directed King Arthur: a dreary and generic action flick. The second is 2017's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword: an immensely boring Guy Ritchie film that foolishly tries to set up a multi-film series without trying to be something special on its own. The third film is what I am dealing with here in this review: 20th Century Fox's The Kid Who Would Be King, something of a King Arthur film targeted at children. Make of that whatever you will. So when I say that the 21st century has been unkind to the tales of King Arthur, that's to say that all the films I just described above are rather unpleasant movie-watching experiences. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is easily the worst of the trio, and The Kid Who Would Be King is considerably the best. That's not saying much though: to say that The Kid Who Would Be King is the best wide release film of the 21st century thus far that directly deals with the legends of King Arthur is like saying getting one wisdom tooth pulled is more enjoyable than getting three or four pulled. It's a less painful experience, but you're still going to hate having to go through it.
The trailers for The Kid Who Would Be King first dropped back in mid-to-late 2018, and, aside from the utter bewilderment of watching a bunch of English schoolchildren preparing to fight an enchantress and her magical army, when I saw that the movie was targeting a late January 2019 wide release, the cynic in me jumped out and already declared the film to be one of the worst new releases of the year. You can imagine my additional shock when I saw the critical acclaim that The Kid Who Would Be King was getting in the few weeks prior to its release. Now having finally seen the film months after its poor box office run, I take a fair amount of solace in sticking with my initial cynicism. The Kid Who Would Be King, while not flat-out dreadful, is an unsatisfactory take on the King Arthur lore, lacking the subtlety and charm that would make it worthwhile for children and adults alike.
The Kid Who Would Be King opens with narration on the infamous King Arthur and his quest to acquire Excalibur and gather his Knights of the Round Table. Arthur had succeeded in putting an end to the war that ravaged the medieval times, turning several of his enemies into friends. The only one who stood in Arthur's way was his half-sister, Morgana (Ferguson), an enchantress who wanted to take the power of Excalibur for herself and use it to rule the world. Arthur and his allies defeated Morgana and sealed her away, and she would not return until the world was divided and leaderless once again.
Fast forward to present day England, where the world is divided and leaderless once again. We meet the twelve-year old boy Alexander Elliot (Ashbourne Serkis). Elliot lives with his mother (Denise Gough), both of whom struggle with the absence of Elliot's father, who Alex hasn't seen since he was five years old. Alex also struggles with bullies at school. Two bullies in particular Alex finds himself up against are Lance (Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris). One night, when Lance and Kaye chase after Alex, Alex retreats to a construction site, where he finds a sword positioned in a giant rock. Alex pulls the sword out of the rock and takes it with him. The next day at school, a teenage boy enrolls in Alex's classes, but this is no ordinary teenage boy: the boy is actually the ancient wizard Merlin (Taylor/Stewart), and he discovers that Alex was the one who pulled the sword from the rock. Merlin tells Alex the sword he pulled is the one and only Excalibur, and that he must stop Morgana from taking the sword and enslaving all of England. Thus begins an epic adventure for Alex and his friends: battling evil demons and learning how to live the famous Arthurian code of chivalry.
- The best things The Kid Who Would Be King has going for itself is its convincing special effects and its decent action scenes. Morgana's fiery demons are well-detailed and about as good of a CGI creation as you'll get in a PG-rated film. There's a scene where Alex and his friends are training in swordsmanship with the help of living, moving trees, and the CGI trees are composited quite well with the characters. The actors show us convincingly they know how to interact with whatever stand-in object was used for the trees behind the scenes, without any direct signs of visible confusion/uncertainty. The action, meanwhile, is primarily filmed in a clean wide-shot format: whenever Alex or someone is trying to run away or slash at an incoming demon, Joe Cornish usually has Alex and the demon in the frame together. Basically, every shot during an action sequence is detailed enough so that you can get a perfect awareness of where the characters are and how they are moving. It's more than enough to keep the film from ever becoming boring, and for that alone, I am thankful.
- I would have appreciated The Kid Who Would Be King a lot more if it wasn't as self-serious as it turns out to be, because the movie's clear attempts at comedy do not work at all. Just about every joke is either set up poorly or has a weak punch-line, and even worse, the movie doesn't seem to have any idea about how to balance its comedic moments with its dramatic ones, the latter of which heavily outweighing the former, and thus, throwing the movie's status as a comedy into question. Alex has a line fairly early on in which he tries to dismiss the ridiculous idea of him becoming king, citing that he is only twelve years old. This is the kind of self-awareness that I wanted to see more of from the film, because then the movie would make it clear that it's poking fun at its premise that, let's not kid ourselves, is pretty ridiculous to begin with. A bunch of English schoolchildren embracing the power of King Arthur and tasked with stopping a demon from taking over the world? I'm pretty sure a lot of those children would run in terror if they saw a bunch of fiery demons on horseback charging at them, rather than embracing danger like it was a day off from school. Not being boring is different from being fun and delightful.
- The Kid Who Would Be King's greatest crime, however, is its annoying and undesirable characters. Alex is supposed to become king, except the movie never gives us any valuable insight as to who exactly Alex is and why he would make a good king. Most of the time, Alex is either moping about how much he misses his father or giving a pessimistic outlook on him becoming king, like he's a modern day Jon Snow (the brief Game of Thrones mention put into the movie is not funny, by the way). There's just next to nothing the movie does to make Alex charming, and that's why it's harder to feel engaged with his quest. Alex isn't the worst character in the movie though. That title belongs to Alex's best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo): an utterly useless character who does nothing but follow Alex around and play the role of moral support. Chaumoo's squeaky voice and dopey facial expressions are more likely to induce anger and annoyance than they are to induce aww's like when someone sees an adorable puppy. Seriously, he serves NO PURPOSE to the movie, other than to be the obligatory best friend character. Lance and Kaye are generic bullies, and even when they become Alex's knights, they still struggle to develop anything resembling a personality. On the other hand, Tom Taylor and Patrick Stewart are perfectly watchable as the young and elderly Merlin, respectively, while Rebecca Ferguson proves she has what it takes to play a convincing villain. Taylor knows how to be goofy, playing a fish out of water kind of role as the younger Merlin, and Patrick Stewart just needs to be himself to play the elderly Merlin. Ferguson brings a slithering, snake-like persona to her role, and she's pretty damn good at it when the movie gives her the chance. Too bad the script doesn't care much to show Morgana in her human form, meaning poor Ferguson is given a stingy amount of screen time to show studios that she would make a good villain in future films. Maybe it's not that much of a surprise that the best characters are those played by the more familiar actors. Louis Ashborne Serkis, Dean Chaumoo, and all the other younger actors certainly have bright futures. They just don't have the experience yet to take a shakily written character and turn it into something convincing.
I do wonder how much confidence 20th Century Fox had in The Kid Who Would Be King, considering they released the film in January: arguably the most reviled month of the cinematic year. The failed box office run of 2017's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword ought to have been enough proof that 21st century audiences aren't exactly raving and screaming about the King Arthur legends, and seeing how The Kid Who Would Be King tanked at the box office, that sentiment still holds true in 2019. It's not a terrible film: the CGI and action are strong enough that the film is never boring, but with an unlikable cast of characters and very little to offer in terms of comedy, The Kid Who Would Be King is a misguided take on the King Arthur legend, believing that simply targeting messages of honor and chivalry at children is enough to give itself a pat on the back. Sure, it means well: always telling the truth, never giving up, and respecting those around you are important lessons that we should be teaching to children. It is entirely possible, however, to get these same points across without having to rely on ridiculous concepts such as putting the King Arthur legend in modern-day England and having an entire school be tasked with fighting a magical army of demons. Charming? Fun? No, I do not think the premise is either of those things, but it sure as hell could be, if the movie wasn't so self-serious. The King Arthur legend could definitely work as a film, but as something like The Kid Who Would Be King? No thanks. This is one King I would not vote for.
Recommend? No. The movie isn't boring, but it isn't exactly pleasant viewing either.
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