The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

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Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 24: Camelot (1967)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Camelot (1967) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 153 of the first edition hardback, Ebert mentions that he lacks a formal film education and that he learned a lot about filmmaking as a craft by visiting sets as a journalist. He writes, “I spent full days on sound stages during movies like Camelot and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, watching a scene being done with a master shot and then broken down into closer shots and angles. I heard lighting and sound being discussed. I didn’t always understand what I was hearing, but I absorbed the general idea. I learned to see movies in terms of individual shots, instead of being swept along by the narrative.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: Camelot is exactly what we were promised: ornate, visually beautiful, romantic and staged as the most lavish production in the history of the Hollywood musical. If that’s what you like, you’ll like it.” – from his 1967 review for The Chicago Sun-Times

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Looks like I finally hit the inevitable crossroads in this project where Ebert & I greatly differ on our enthusiasm for a work. The late, great critic was ecstatic about the mid-60s movie musical Camelot, a towering production that managed to stretch across 170 minutes of celluloid despite omitting several musical numbers from its stage play source material. Personally, I only see the same uninspiring Big Studio bloat here that Ebert chided in our last lesson, the John Wayne action epic Hellfighters, except without that film’s stray moments of immense beauty. Arriving at a time when New Hollywood rebels like Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate were re-energizing an increasingly workmanlike, dispassionate movie industry, this three hour swashbuckling Ren Faire musical feels lame, stale, uninspired. I can totally see how musical theater geeks or folks obsessed with Arthurian folklore could be enamored with the late-era Old Hollywood spectacle of Camelot (Ebert doubly so, since it was one of the first film sets he was invited to visit as a writer), but the movie just did nothing for me. Outside of providing some extratextual context for the recent film Jackie & boasting a delightfully mischievous performance from a young, scene-stealing Vanessa Redgrave, Camelot weighed on me heavily as an overlong bore. I couldn’t even take pleasure in its period-specific costuming, which had all of the visual interest of a local, underfunded Ren Faire.

Is there any point to summarizing the plot of this Arthurian legend? King Arthur, Merlyn, Excalibur, Guenevere, Lancelot, and the Knights of the Round Table should all be familiar names in the public conscious, even if by secondhand knowledge through Disney’s The Sword and the Stone or a half-remembered Wishbone episode. Besides a dirty hippie version of Merlyn nearly pulling off a proto-Rob Zombie look, there’s really not much deviation worth describing here. The one thing Camelot does differently from most tellings is delivering most of its character work through song, a result of its nature as a cinematic Broadway adaptation. The film’s main crisis centers on a love triangle vying for Guenevere’s affections, a tension that leads Lancelot & Arthur to engage in battle. The battling itself, depicted through carefully staged sword fights, isn’t nearly as important as the forbidden three-way Hollywood romance, a conflict conveyed through a series of characters noticing each other notice each other with intensely jealous eye contact. This might be compelling if all three participants in this doomed Arthur-Lancelot-Guenevere trio were interesting as individual characters, but only Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of Guenevere registers as particularly memorable. In her first two musical numbers, Guenevere sings about the simple joys of living single and how Springtime makes her horny, a one-two punch of strikingly modern numbers with entertainment value never touched by Richard Harris’s nostalgic/sappy performance as King Arthur. Unfortunately (but understandably), Arthur’s whiny inner conflicts eat up a majority of the runtime and Redgrave isn’t given nearly enough screentime to counterbalance the film’s overlong chore of a slow-drip narrative & uninteresting visual appeal.

Obviously, it’s highly likely that I’m the one who’s wrong about Camelot‘s entertainment value & filmmaking merits. After all, Ebert was likely much better equipped to judge the worth of a musical theater adaptation than I, a cynical outsider to the genre, and it did win three Academy Awards for its efforts: Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Music. As heavily referenced in Jackie, the original musical version of Camelot was also a personal favorite of John F. Kennedy’s, so the musical & this adaptation surely held a strong cultural & historical significance in the years following his 1963 assassination. I’m okay with being the modern philistine who can’t relate with the material, because it’s just so far outside what I usually seek out in my entertainment media. It would take a very specific kind of theater/Ren Faire nerd to fully embrace Camelot as a first watch in 2017 and I just don’t fit the type. I will say, however, that Vanessa Redgrave’s performance, particularly in her musical number about Springtime horniness, almost made the three limp hours that surround it worthwhile. She’s that great.

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Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

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Brandon’s Rating (2/5, 40%)

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Next Lesson: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

-Brandon Ledet