In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the Earth is blown up to make way for an interstellar highway. But the insult to that injury is that the titular guidebook – intended to help joyriding aliens to find their way around the cosmos – has a very short entry for the planet before it is evaporated. It simply says:
Those two words, sadly, describe how I feel about The Kid Who Would Be King, Joe Cornish’s Arthurian young person’s adventure movie. Not quite bad enough to dislike, but also missing any of the energy or magic that Cornish brought to Attack the Block, The Kid Who Would Be King is simply mostly harmless. It’s a largely forgettable film with great creature design and one terrific performance.
Attack the Block revealed itself to be a commentary on contemporary Britain, culminating in Moses hanging from the Union Jack. It’s a movie that slowly reveals itself to be more than just an R-rated Amblin tale, and it’s a movie that is crammed full of memorable, dimensional characters. The Kid Who Would Be King, on the other hand, begins as a commentary on contemporary Britain, and loudly announces itself as essentially a Brexit movie right from the start, once the retelling of the Arthurian legend is complete.
See, Britain is in shambles, psychically. The people are at each other’s throats, and the headlines are all “GLOOM” and “WAR” and more “GLOOM.” While Brexit is never mentioned, the idea of a divided populace turned against itself and a Britain in moral decline is clearly speaking to this exact moment in time. The current state of the island is such that Morgana, King Arthur’s half-sister and nemesis, is rousing from her slumber beneath the soil and preparing to return and enslave the people of Britain.
But, as the legends say, the once and future king is destined to return, and the sword Excalibur shows up at a construction site into which schoolboy Alex has been chased by a pair of diverse bullies (a blonde white kid and a black girl). When he yanks the sword from its stone scabbard he finds himself caught up in a quest to save Britain from its ancient enemy. Like Arthur before him, Alex must bring together his allies – Bedders, his nerdy best friend – and his enemies – Lance and Kaye, the bullies – and then he must travel the land and enter the underworld to defeat Morgana before she can arise and bring about an apocalypse.
Cornish takes this structure and uses it as a way to examine the meaning of myths, both personal and national. Alex has a myth about his missing dad, one he must confront, and Britain has lost the myth that holds it together as one people. Alex and the isle must both write new legends that explain who they are and where they’re going, and only by erasing what is unhealthy in the past and forging something new for the future can either hope to survive.
I love that! It’s an incredible thematic angle to take, to look at both how vital mythology is but also how easily it gets corrupted or its meaning lost. We need these legends, but we also need to not be rigidly trapped within them. They need to be supple, changeable, on both personal and national levels. But The Kid Who Would Be King doesn’t quite go far enough; it lays these ideas out on the table and then never truly pursues them any further.
Of course it’s a kid’s movie. This isn’t Attack the Block, and I don’t think it should be Attack the Block. But at the same time I don’t think that ‘it’s a kid’s movie’ is a good excuse for a film to not follow through on its own thematic elements, especially not one from the guy who made Attack the Block. The writing of The Kid Who Would Be King simply pales in comparison to that of Attack the Block. The dialogue is often stilted, and none of the characters – except Merlin – come to life. The film’s structure is soggy, and drags terribly in the middle hour.
But most of all the world of The Kid Who Would Be King feels empty. There are five main characters and that’s about it; a few supporting characters exist at the margins, but there’s no sense of a bigger world. In Attack the Block we got a fully realized apartment building with plenty of side characters; here, in a movie that depend on Alex uniting his fellow students to become an army, we never get to meet anyone beyond the main cast.
It’s worth noting that the running time of The Kid Who Would Be King is exactly two hours, which makes me wonder if what we’re watching is some kind of mildly brutalized version of Cornish’s original vision. That’s a very specific runtime, the kind of runtime you are contractually obligated to meet and not exceed. If the film was brutalized to make it fit into two hours things make more sense; the fact that Lance and Kaye are essentially ciphers makes sense when you realize that Cornish needed to focus his limited time on Alex. Morgana being almost non-existent as a meaningful character and yet being played by Rebecca Ferguson makes more sense when you imagine there’s a version of this movie where she might actually have a scene or two.
Understanding that the film may have been cut down doesn’t change the fact that in its current incarnation The Kid Who Would Be King never quite takes off. Cornish showed a mastery of economic character creation in Attack the Block – the reveal of Moses’ Spider-Man bedsheets was one of the decade’s best character moments, and it was quiet and quick – so the fact that he’s unable to pull off the same here is a bummer. These kids have no lives outside their scenes; the group disappears on a quest for three days and yet no one beyond Alex ever even considers their family back home. The lack of character in Alex’s Knights of the Round Table is part of what makes the middle of the film a slog; as the group travels together on a quest we’re stuck with a group of characters who have little more going on than being a collection of signifying traits.
This is all sounding a bit rough as I read it back, and I know I said this movie was Mostly Harmless. It is! It’s competently made and none of that sluggish middle hour is particularly BAD, it’s just not particularly good. Mostly it simply IS, it just simply happens. It’s fine, unmemorable, perfectly okay. And I have to be honest: I was hoping for more.
There are highlights. The design of the undead warriors who crawl from the ground every night are absolutely terrific, and terrifying. I love that they speak in the zombie voice from Creepshow, and I love that they fall apart in these showers of sparks and embers. And Angus Imrie, playing the young Merlin, is simply spectacular. He brings a raucous energy to the movie that is otherwise missing, and his spellcasting – involving elaborate, full body movements – is always delightfully fun to watch. Imrie is a TV actor in the UK, and he feels like the huge find of the movie, the actor most likely to break through into other work.
But the rest of the movie is lacking in the magic Imrie brings. The only sparks are the ones into which the undead warriors explode, and in the end The Kid Who Would Be King ends up a pleasant enough, but not particularly invigorating, diversion. I wish Cornish had kept the action contained at school, and had given us student groups that reflected the divides in British society; seeing Alex have to bring these groups together would have been wonderful, and would have spoken to the film’s thematic conceit of building new legends that serve us to replace the ones that don’t.
Maybe that’s the biggest disappointment – there was an opportunity to create a new legend here, to wrestle the Arthurian tale into the 21st century, but instead we ended up with something mostly harmless. I still believe in Joe Cornish, and I believe his legend is yet unwritten. Every hero has a less than stellar part of their story, after all.
*This is an update to Earth’s entry, which had previously been just ‘Harmless.’