The Kid Who Would Be King is a winning throwback to the humble after-school TV fantasies of the ’70s and ’80s. This is a movie that genuinely feels made for kids and in an age of smarmy children’s films pandering to adult audiences this is incredibly refreshing.
Young Alex Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is a noble-hearted schoolkid who protects his oddball best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) from bullies at his own expense. One night, while being pursued by playground menaces Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Doris), he stumbles upon a sword in a stone, pulls it out and is charged with a quest to save England from Morgan le Fay (Rebecca Ferguson), who has been biding her time in the underworld waiting to attack a weakened, dispirited England. Luckily, Merlin (Angus Imrie and occasionally Patrick Stewart) returns to help him use Excalibur to its full Arthurian potential. Friendships are forged, evil is defeated, and everyone has a lot of fun doing it.
Performances are all likeable and uncloyingly cute but Angus Imrie’s young, howlingly camp Merlin is the showstealer. His finger-snapping magical gestures are delivered with a bug-eyed, gurning intensity that never stops being amusing (and will almost certainly be imitated by youngsters). His initial appearance at the school has poor Alex and Bedders delighted that there’s finally someone nerdier than them to lure the bullies away. Merlin occasionally transforms himself into Patrick Stewart to deliver lines with more gravitas, and sneezes himself into a feather-shedding owl form – often with hilarious results.
This is definitely kids’ fare and you won’t find any hidden depths to it, but it’s also very sweet and funny and knows how kids’ minds work. The action climax, set in a school, is exactly how kids would imagine defeating an enemy. There’s some meta-humour here regarding all the Hero’s Journey clichés, but it’s exactly how nerdy kids raised on Harry Potter and Star Wars would talk about it. When they reflect on what they’ve stumbled into, they laugh and mock the very notion. The film never loses sight of how normal people would react to the magical goings on, and derives a fair amount of humour from it. There are some bleak undercurrents to set the scene, with (thankfully non-specific) talk of division in Europe and Alex’s single mother (Denise Gough) hiding some (very mundanely) sad truths from him. It seldom over-eggs the drama and most of the film is breezy and light even when things get (mildly) scary. It never loses sight of the age of its protagonists, who always look pleasingly awkward in their school uniforms, especially when they borrow some ponies and ride around modern England in bits of curio-shop armour.
When combined with his debut, Attack the Block, director Joe Cornish has really established himself here as a writer and director who knows how to direct a film that’s both catnip for kids and charming enough for adults without nudging-and-winking at them. Both audiences are going to be laughing at the same things.
Most adults really won’t need to watch this, but anyone with a taste for simple, honest fun should be utterly delighted. If you’re taking kids to see a film, take ’em to see this one.