Twice Told Tales

A new take on the Arthurian legend in The Kid Who Would Be King

If you haven’t seen Attack the Block, Joe Cornish’s 2011 aliens-invade-the-council-block movie starring the future first female Doctor Who and future Finn in The Force Awakens, I insist that you rectify this error at your earliest convenience. It’s smart, funny and inventive, and it’s the rare film that dares branch out from the “like giant bugs, but way creepier” school of alien design. 

Attack the Block earned Cornish a slew of fans who’ve been anxious to see what he’d direct next. Most of us wouldn’t have guessed “unsubtle Brexit-era Arthurian legend retelling for kids,” but there are far worse ways to re-enter the public consciousness.

The Kid Who Would Be King is a kids’ movie that feels of a different era, earnest and gangly and neither smug about grownups nor in a hurry to get to adulthood. Near the end, Merlin (played as an adult by a frazzled Patrick Stewart in a Led Zep T-shirt) tells his young heroes that there’s an old soul in every kid — and a foolish child in every adult.

Merlin is played as two ages (Stewart’s grown man and Angus Imrie’s wide-eyed, off-kilter teen) for a reason: Cornish doesn’t want to offer just hollow platitudes about how kids are going to save the world (what responsibility to drop on their shoulders!). He’s more interested in a reminder that there are different kinds of power in youth and adulthood, and they’re both yours to make choices about.

Kid is neither the most subversive nor the most “traditional” version of Arthurian mythology. The film could’ve used stronger female roles, especially given how good Cornish’s cast is. He’s got two actresses, Denise Gough and Noma Dumezweni, with brilliant recent turns on Broadway; Mission: Impossible’s Rebecca Ferguson as Morgana; and charismatic newcomer Rhianna Dorris as an under-written Lady Kaye.

For better or worse, Cornish is working from a certain mold — Hollywood movies about mostly male groups of kids saving the world — and he’s doing more with it than is usually done. It’s rare a movie can be as sincerely kind as this one without inching towards the saccharine, but Cornish knows to let bullies be bullies; to let kids be mad and happy and disagree and tell each other off; to let parents fail kids and kids let down their parents; and let none of it be the stuff of dramatic eternal fallings-out and failures. 

That said, it’s a bit disconcerting how the fate of the world hangs in the balance but no one gets so much as a scratch. Maybe I’m just in need of more cinematic hugs (one can only watch Paddington 2 so many times), but though I could see The Kid’s flaws — an uninteresting Morgana le Fay; an obvious fake-out not-ending; it’s all a bit too long — they didn’t make me enjoy the film any less. Cornish might’ve been predictable about it, but he told one of my favorite stories: the one about how you don’t have to accept the stories you’ve been told, even if they have the weight of myth.

Our Arthur reborn, here called Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), realizes at one point that all the stories he knows are the same: boys with absent fathers learning they’ve been chosen. This well-worn yarn suits him to a T — but it’s not the point at all.

It’s what you do, not who you are, that gives you the power in Cornish’s world. And if you’re not there yet? You’ve still got time to grow up. There are always more battles to fight.

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