The Kid Who Would be King
Joe Cornish came out in 2011 as one of the creative minds to watch out for, with his fun directorial debut: Attack the Block. Since then the British director has only had an appearance as a writer for Marvel’s Ant-Man, it took eight years for him to bring about his sophomore directorial outing: The Kid Who Would Be King.
The Kid Who Would Be King is an original idea from Cornish and adapts the classic “King Arthur” legend into modern times. We follow Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), a bullied young boy who just started junior high in London. One night, after running away from some bullies, Alex happens upon the sword Excalibur at a construction site. When Alex draws the sword from a concrete block, strange things begin to happen, with the evil Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) sending fiery skeleton warriors after him, and a boyish Merlin (Angus Imrie) appearing to help send Alex and his friends on their quest.
The film has a surprisingly solid first three quarters, with the analysis of youth rebellion and search for identity as core factors of the story. These aspects were also a main aspect of Cornish’s Attack the Block and here he has clearly honed his ability to convey his message, while leaving nuggets of symbolism relating to the film’s mythology. Cornish has also shown that he’s adept at working with child actors, something many directors try and avoid. When given the choice of having an adult actor play Merlin, Cornish decides he wants there to be a full immersion of dignity for kids watching the film, that they don’t need a patronizing old man telling them what to do (although Patrick Stewart does appear sometimes as an older Merlin).
Given the ridiculous premise, it would have been very easy to lose the adults in the audience by the get-go, but Cornish is able to balance a sense of disbelief while also grounding his characters and world in a realistic Britain. This charm, along with some convincing performances from the young cast (Imrie as the young Merlin is particularly great), helps bring us to the finale of the film with high expectations and smiles on our faces.
However, the finale is where things surprisingly fall apart. There are two clear endings to this story, a more personal one with a more trimmed confrontation with Morgana, and a higher scale battle. Instead of choosing one, Cornish (and more likely the studio) seem to tack both on. The result is that we get two resolutions, so that by the time all the messages in the film have been hammered home, there are still thirty minutes left to bring about a visual-effects extravaganza. Given the first three fourths of the film, the more personal and smaller ending seemed to correlate with what Cornish was going after. However, since he was now working for a big studio and a much bigger budget, he no doubt had to abide by the studio’s demand for a big battle with lots of violence and effects. The result is that you don’t really care for this last act, as you’re counting down the time left rather than paying attention to the screen. The balance that was so carefully achieved in the first parts of the film, of the fantastical and real, are suddenly thrown into the air as kids learn to ride horses without effort, sword-fight with twenty minutes training, and have the reflexes of a ninja naturally; I could hear the parents throughout my theater audibly sigh.
In the end, The Kid Who Would Be King is a fairly entertaining movie. It was nearly recommendable enough for parents and adults, until the last act debacle that is made to numb viewers and fill a violence quota. Here’s to Cornish furthering his skills and not letting himself be tied down by studio demands.