If you have kids of your own or just have any kids in your life as an uncle, aunt, or guardian, how do you talk to them about what’s going on in the world these days? Are they better off not paying attention to and thus not worrying about the various wars and/or potential future wars like Syria and Venezuela? Do you stay mum about the recent (and possible future) U.S. government shutdown and only try to explain it to them if they ask? How do you sugarcoat things and reassure them everything will turn out OK with Brexit when absolutely nobody knows that to be true? How do explain why we’re so divided as a people and seemingly always ready to right?
These seem to be the types of questions which weighed on Joe Cornish – once a film critic, now a promising director thanks to 2011’s Attack the Block – as he crafted his new film, The Kid Who Would Be King. In searching for how best to inspire the kids of today to deal with the mess we adults are making of the world, he turned to the past and found inspiration in the legend of King Arthur, taking from it lessons about chivalry, basic decency and finding common ground with enemies.
Thus, we have a fantasy kids movie which repeatedly tells its kid characters to pay less attention to the details of the fantasy – magical swords, a tree nymph plotting world domination, a wizard who can only come out during the day – and focus instead on the larger lessons to be learned. Chiefly, in the many real-world fights ahead if the kids grow up to comport themselves with the same grace and dignity of the King Arthur characters of old they might just have a fighting chance of…well, if not outright saving the world then at least saving a small little corner of it and turning into decent adults in the process.
That’s why so, so many critics have seen fit to describe The Kid Who Would Be King as “well-meaning” or “kindhearted.” This is, after all, a movie which begins with non-specific references to real-world turmoil, the rise of strongmen and failure of leadership. The primary conflict is driven by a very old creature who is given renewed power thanks to the failings in “the hearts of men.” Defeating her is simply an excuse to learn some life lessons to prepare for the various metaphorical wars on the horizon. Not a bad message to be preaching.
Far fewer of the critics, however, are also throwing words like “great” or “flawless” around. That’s because as a message delivery machine, The Kid Who Would Be King makes its point quite clear, but as an actual piece of kids entertainment it can’t help but feel a tad lacking – too serious for its own good, always another draft of the script away from a better line or joke, passable, but not amazing action, and inconsistent acting, solid with some casting choices, questionable with others.
It’s Tomorrowland all over again. There, Brad Bird and his screenwriters dreamed up a scenario where the biggest threat to the planet isn’t any one problem or collection of them but instead our collective belief in our inability to actually solve those problems. The real enemy: cynicism. Try being more positive and proactive and you might just save the world, so learned that film’s young protagonist.
All of that power of positive thinking, however, couldn’t cover for the film’s various other failings, such as playing George Clooney’s relationship with a pre-teen co-star as something far closer to romance than it should have been. I ended up liking the message more than movie.
I now feel the same about The Kid Who Would King, which I saw this past weekend at my nephew’s request. He’s been taking a mixed media class this semester all about The Hero’s Journey and how it permeates throughout pop culture. Not exactly standard middle school material, I’ll grant you. Either way, The Kid Who Would Be King so fits the bill the characters in the movie even hang a lantern on it.
The plot, for those of you reading this who didn’t watch the trailer I embedder earlier, is simple: A British nerd named Alex (Louis Serkis, aka, Andy Serkis’ son) with just one friend, Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), and an absentee father is chosen by King Arthur sword to carry on his legacy. As he struggles to figure out what that means, the forces of evil are drawn to him. One of Arthur’s old enemies – actually, his half-sister (Rebecca Ferguson) – banished beneath the Earth for centuries threatens to return. Alex’s only hope, apparently, is to adopt the antiquated chivalric code and talk the bigger, older bullies from his school (Tom Taylor, Rhianna Doris) into becoming members of his new Knights of the Round Table.
Well, that and he can usually rely on a resurrected Merlin for help, played here alternately by Angus Imrie (when Merlin attempts to blend in at Alex’s school as a 16-year-old new student) and Patrick Stewart (when Merlin reverts to his older form). Like most mentors in these kinds of stories, Merlin really does most of the work until the time comes for Alex to prevail or fail on his own without him.
Because Alex and Bedders have seen lots of movies and read lots of books, they’re quick to point out how similar their life has become to Star Wars, Harry Potter, and other geek flashpoints. However, The Kid Who Would Be King quickly drops such comparisons and instead lets the story play out fairly straight-faced. There is none of that “here’s one for the kids and now here’s one for adults” mixture of physical comedy and pop culture references nor is there the type of self-referential humor you’d see in a Marvel movie. Instead, this is a very classical telling of a very old story, which would be fine if the script, acting, and action was more compelling.
But the whole thing does boil down to an entire school full of knighted, armor-wearing little kids fighting off scary skeleton soldiers and a fire-breathing dragon. For any kid who currently does or any adult who remembers daydreaming about saving your school from invaders and being crowned the hero, Joe Cornish has got you covered. He’d just also really like everyone to walk away striving to be a better person. The poor box office suggests the message has yet to find purchase with a wide audience, but God bless him for trying.