A director couldn’t ask for a much more successful debut feature than the one Joe Cornish had with Attack the Block in 2011. Produced by nerd mascot Edgar Wright and introducing the world to future Star Wars lead John Boyega as a baby-faced teen, that small-budget creature feature has gradually transformed into a cult classic over the last eight years, drumming up a lot of anticipation for Cornish’s much-delayed follow-up. Of course, that kind of early success is a blessing and a curse, as it put a lot of pressure on Cornish’s sophomore effort to deliver something remarkable – an expectation it never truly lives up to. There’s nothing especially horrendous about Joe Cornish’s King Arthur modernization The Kid Who Would Be King. It’s occasionally charming & overall harmless, but also overlong & minor in a way that undercuts its potential. The excellence of Attack the Block weighs heavily on it in terms of expectation & anticipation, but also in highlighting how The Kid Who Would Be King underutilizes its urban London setting. We’ve seen Cornish stage an excellent modern fantasy horror in city streets before, so it’s hard to reconcile why he fails to repeat the formula on this second round.
Story-wise, there isn’t much deviation from the traditional Arthurian legend here besides the modern setting & the age of the players. After an opening illustration of the Arthurian template as told in a child’s picture book, we meet a pair of young, bullied kids who feel the weight of an increasingly grim world but are helpless against it. Newspapers declare “GLOOM,” “WAR,” “FEAR,” and “CRISIS” in bold headlines, and schoolyard bullies shake them down for chump change, recalling the curse of modern negativity that sets the table for Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland. Sensing that the world has become leaderless, heartless, and unprincipled, King Arthur’s long-dormant half-dragon/half-sister Morgana wakes from her underground brooding hole to attack London with her flaming skeleton army. It’s up to the bullied, gloomy kids (led by Andy Serkis’s offspring, Louis Ashbourne Serkis) to save London from serving Morgana as slaves in Hell, a destiny triggered by the discovery of a sword in a stone at a nearby construction site. A shapeshifting Merlin soon arrives to provide guidance & (much-needed) comic relief and the rest of the story essentially tells itself. The humor is cute but not hilarious. The action is decent but not spectacular. The modernization of Arthurian lore is consistent but not adventurous. The entire exercise is pleasantly executed, but not distinct enough to justify the effort of its sprawling runtime.
The inconsistency of The Kid Who Would be King’s success depends entirely on when it fully utilizes its urban London surroundings and when it gets lost in the rural wilderness. In the film’s best moments, kids slay demons on horseback in city streets & middle school hallways – action set pieces that fully realize the modernized Arthurian lore promised in the premise. The problem is that a large portion of the film wanders far away from the city and often feels like any other fantasy epic from the last forty years of cinema – just one with a modern budget & kids’ film sensibilities. Patrick Stewart is even featured in a recurring cameo as one of Merlin’s many forms, directly referencing the 1981 feature Excalibur, a cornerstone of the genre. The Kid Who Would Be King also shoots itself in the foot by namechecking the protagonists of more successful modernized fantasy genre exercises like Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and Percy Jackson (or, in the bullies’ parlance and one of the film’s only successful one-liners, Percy Jockstrap), each of which did a much more convincing job bringing ancient fantasy elements to the city streets instead of the other way around. That’s not even to mention the more low-budget, artsy-fartsy examples the film could have emulated like A Monster Calls, I Kill Giants, and appropriately enough, Attack the Block. Too much of The Kid Who Would Be King loses sight of the modern, urban allure of its premise and drifts hundreds of miles away from London streets – and every minute wasted in that wilderness is a bore.
I can’t come down on this movie too harshly. There’s plenty of minor pleasures to enjoy throughout, even if those flashes of joy are buried under a lumbering runtime. Angus Imrie is adorable as the teenage version of Merlin and feels like the arrival of a fresh comic presence. The synthy score provided by Electric Wave Bureau recalls the golden age of 80s fantasy cheese of films like Ladyhawke & Legend in just the right way. I’ll even admit that the inherent Britishness of Arthurian lore and the unfair expectation set by the excellence of Attack the Block might have been preventing me from enjoying what’s ultimately a harmless, competently staged children’s adventure film. Still, I was outright bored by any sequence that took place outside the streets of London, which made up for an alarming portion of a film that did not need to be two hours long to begin with. The benefit of retelling stories like The King Arthur legend is that audiences are already familiar with the template, which frees you up to play with the details. If you only modernize the story halfway, you can only expect the result to be halfway interesting, and we’ve already seen Joe Cornish achieve something much more substantial than that with a comparable setting & budget.