Writer/director Joe Cornish made a huge splash in 2011 with his youth-oriented sci-fi movie Attack the Block, which absorbed the stylistic lessons of 1980s genre fare without feeling beholden to them, deftly interweaving the economic realities of lower-class life without preaching about its consequences. Like many, I assumed Cornish would assume a standard accelerated track common to many who break out as he did, quickly helming a so-so studio film before moving onto a massive blockbuster. But seven years later, he still had yet to make his follow-up.
The Kid Who Would Be King is in some regards a bold next step, and in others a regression to the tendencies that could have turned Attack the Block to pure nostalgia. Set very distinctly in the post-Brexit, post-Trump realm of new Western Authoritarianism, the film uses the backdrop of global discord to assume, well, why wouldn’t now be the time for an ancient evil sorceress (Rebecca Ferguson) to rise up again and fulfill her destiny to rule the world when it’s at its most vulnerable? At the center of the fight against it is Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), a 12-year-old boy who isn’t well-liked at school but boasts a strong moral compass. One night, while running away from some bullies, he finds a sword planted in a stone in a construction site, one thing leads to another, and wouldn’t you know it he might just be the descendent of King Arthur, destined to save us all.
Unlike most Chosen Ones narratives, Alex is forced to struggle with a feeling that he is otherwise unwanted. His dad ran away long ago, a gap a young boy tends to fill in with all sorts of magnificent notions about male independence and bravery, and one which his mom – despite her best efforts – has never quite been able to fill. It struggles, however, in defining the parameters under which a young boy could possibly save the world. He has as a sort of guardian and guide the magician Merlin, who takes the form of a teenager (Angus Imrie) to worm his way into Alex’s school, but is most comfortable in the form of an old man in a Led Zeppelin T-shirt (Patrick Stewart). The senselessness of this transformation, the nagging feeling that they just couldn’t lock down Patrick Stewart for the entire shoot and/or were desperate to fit him into the film too late in the production schedule to rewrite the role, is overcome by the terrific charisma both actors display, and the film considerably livens up whenever either is onscreen.
But for various – terribly convenient – reasons of Honor and Random Rules We Apply to Magicians, Merlin cannot simply save the day with his magic, and much of the true fight has to be won by Alex and his Knights of the Round Table, which consists of his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) and their former-bullies-turned-allies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris). Cornish’s screenplay is not as witty as Attack the Block, despite some early promise, quickly settling into familiar territory of characters exclaiming quite directly what they want and how they feel, and the contrast makes clear that while Cornish remembers quite clearly the daily realities of being a teenager, like too many filmmakers before him, he only remembers the general sensation of being a child. Alex lacks the anger and cleverness boys his age tend to possess, in its place a loose sense of melancholy and pride that the film never fully explores because it keeps placing this pride in the context of, well, saving the world, so why wouldn’t he feel a bit noble.
Still, it’s sweet, and fun, and comes around to genuinely investing its sense of melancholy in some real loss and uncertainty, not only about the larger trajectory of neo-fascism (you may defeat the sorceress, but your country’s still in trouble), but about the emotional stakes of pinning too much hope on one’s parents. And it’s not at all unpleasurable to watch a school of children don knight armor to fight the undead.
Most of all, and this is not a knock against the film at all, I felt for its misplaced sense of purpose, the nostalgic yearning at its core for a time when kids wanted to go see movies about kids. In a way, that sort of nostalgia is quite bold, as too many kids of the 1980s simply churn out regurtiations of John Carpenter movies. Cornish seems to genuinely believe he can reach a new generation, born into a terribly uncertain world, but one which would much rather invest in adult superheroes. I hope I’m wrong, and this will prove a touchstone for a new generation and reinvigorate the PG family blockbuster, but perhaps kids today have to grow up too fast to think about their childhood too thoroughly.