THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING
Starring Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Dean Chaumoo, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, Angus Imrie, Patrick Stewart, Rebecca Ferguson, Angus Imrie, Denise Gough
Written by Joe Cornish
Directed by Joe Cornish
Produced by Nira Park, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Cinematography by Bill Pope
Edited by Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss
Music by Electric Wave Bureau
Visual Effects Supervisors, Joel Green, Antoine Moulineau, Laurent Gillet, Marc Hutchings, Jack Hughes and Frazer Churchill
Putting aside historian’s squabbles about whether Great Britain’s King Arthur actually existed or did not exist, the more legendary, fabled, whimsical, fantasy-oriented, supernatural-oriented, urban legend/fairy table/fable/bedtime story/campfire story/folk tale/fantasy fascinating stories involving Great Britain’s and its empire’s King Arthur, his wise wizard, adviser and true magician Merlin, Arthur’s queen Guinevere, the scandalous stud and turncoat Lancelot, the kingdom’s headquarters of Camelot, Arthur’s evil nephew Mordred, Arthur’s evil and witchy woman half-sister Morgana, Arthur’s strong and noble father Uther Pendragon, the Holy Grail, the Fisher King, Percival, Galahad, Gawain, Tristan, the Knights of the Round Table, Arthur’s final resting place Avalon, the Lady of the Lake, and the mighty powerful and magical sword Excalibur have been around for centuries, entertaining generations of fans for literally hundreds and hundreds of years. And, in more modern times, the Arthurian legend has created its own globe-owning entertainment empire, covering, well just about everything, including but certainly not limited to films (hundreds of them, including the gold standard “Excalibur”), television shows (many of them, including one showed titled, simply, “Merlin”), radio, plays, music and songs (Led Zeppelin loved to reference Arthurian imagery and references, and so have a thousand other heavy metal and hard rock bands), books (hundreds, including Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” and “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley, among the more notable and memorable titles), comic books, animation, video games, board games, comic strips (the comic strip “Prince Valiant” has been the very best comic strip, hands down, for decades), childrens’ books (many), and even live performance entertainments such as battle recreations, Renaissance Festivals and their associated performances, and the chain Medieval Times, which features kings, queens, knights, horses, jousting, battles and all kinds of Medieval fun. Also include the references and influences that the Arthurian legend has had on thousands of other areas of entertainment—including J. R. R. Tolkien’s acknowledged Arthurian influences in his “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” books and numerous superhero and comic book projects, including late 2018’s “Aquaman,” which dared to include the character Aquaman actually pulling a magic sword out of a rock—and you have quite the powerful popular culture juggernaut and power player.
So one would think that there’s not much new, interesting or inventive to be had from the King Arthur legend—but one, alas, would be quite wrong on that point, as the wholly wonderful, great, must-see and stand-out new film “The Kid Who Would Be King” proves in an exuberant, joyful manner from start to finish: “Kid” is a most-welcome, most joyful fun, funny, smart, enjoyable and thoroughly entertaining film for kids, kids at heart, and, really, people of all ages. And, yes, “Kid” is a great film, a must-see film. Why? Simply, because the film excels at all filmic levels—production, direction, acting and writing; is light and breezy and accessible and fun but still full of some gripping, tense and suspenseful moments that balance that lightness and breeziness; has scores of important, insightful and intelligent morals, messages, themes and lessons for kids and adults; is a fun adventure that takes the audience along on a wild ride into the fantasy, horror (light horror, of course), supernatural, fable, folklore and folk tale worlds; has characters who are easily relatable, likeable—lovable, even–caring and good-hearted who audiences can rally around, support and root for; has some dark, evil villains that audiences can boo and hiss at in a fun manner; and, in general, is well-produced, well-directed, well-acted and well-written from the movie’s colorful, enticing animated start—which provides a quick primer introduction to parts of the Arthur legend—to its uplifting, upbeat, positive and optimistic ending. Put all of that together, and it’s not overstating the case or exaggerating to say that “The Kid Who Would Be King” is great and a must-see film. Some will smirk, grimace and roll their eyes at those statements, but let them smirk and roll their eyes and be as dark and cynical and negative as a Mordred or Morgana, and they’ll be the ones missing out on such a fun film.
“The Kid Who Would Be King” marks a great start to the 2019 film year, the movie is, as noted, a great film for parents to take their young kids to go see in the theaters, is a welcome blast of positivity and optimism amid the dark cloud of doom and gloom that is the real-life current state of things (something that the films’ writer-director Joe Cornish wisely refers to in an intended not-so-subtle manner in the film), and is that great family film that—cliché alert, yes, but it’s true, thus negating the cliché—all members of any family can go see and enjoy, from pre-teens, and including teens, on up to Mom and Dad and Grandpa and Grandma. Really. There’s nothing objectionable, overly negative, overly cynical and sarcastic, overly dark and depressing and overly political in the movie—it’s simply a joy ride of filmic treats. Cornish has made a thoroughly modern film—the zeitgeist, subtexts, sensibilities and personalities are indeed modern-day—but he’s also managed quietly slyly, cleverly and smartly to made a good old-fashioned family film that recalls the best classic-era, non-dark Disney family films, and the better, more positive family films through the years that recall that classic Disney aesthetic, films such as, for example, “The Wizard of Oz,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Great Race,” “Home Alone,” “The Goonies,” “E.T.—the Extra Terrestrial,” “Swiss Family Robinson,” and even “Forrest Gump” in some regards. “Forrest” had its darker moments, yes, but at its heart, that classic film was also in many ways a family film, a fantasy film and a good-hearted film that everyone should see and love—and learn from.
“Kid” tells the engaging, enchanting story of 12-year-old Alex Elliott—endearingly, strongly, and quite confidently portrayed by a stand-out Louis Ashbourne Serkis (yes, the son of actor Andy Serkis)–a strong, sturdy, immensely likeable, cute-but-somewhat tough, reliable middle-class school boy in busy, modern-day London, who is dealing with every-day and not-so-every-day travails of a modern-day 12-year-old boy—school, teachers who don’t seem to get it at all, bullies, good friends who are being bullied, a loving mom, and, alas, an absent father who left the family for parts not-quite-known for reasons not-quiet-understood. Alex, while completely likeable, can be somewhat tough—in a good way–in that he heroically stands up for his bullied friends, including his cute, wide-eyed, funny, wholesome closest friend Bedders (a lovable Dean Chaumoo)—and Alex directly, strongly stands up to the school bullies, a taller blond kid, Lance (a steady, honest and straightforward Tom Taylor), and his tough-girl, tomboy sidekick, Kaye (a reliable, quiet and steady Rhianna Dorris). Meanwhile, on the not-quite-so-every-day level, one night Alex just happens to stumble upon the sword in the stone—yes, that sword in the stone–the one and only Excalibur. Once Alex draws Excalibur from the stone, he is visited by the wizard Merlin—alternately appearing as a funny, charming 16-year-old boy (wisely, strongly and at times hilariously played by a great Angus Imrie), as an owl, and as his true self, a wizened, world-weary, conniving, scheming—and of course brilliant—older wizard beautifully and insightfully played by Patrick Stewart in an inventive, creative and wholly different characterization of Merlin. Together, Alex, Bedders, Merlin and, eventually, Lance and Kaye embark with Excalibur on a classic quest to find the hidden portal to the underworld, defeat the scheming Morgana, who is planning to take over the world in a scenario of evil, fire and darkness, defeat Morgana’s army of demons and hellish creatures, and restore some semblance of good and normalcy to the world. Piece of cake—or scone, in this context!
It is a complete joy to watch the five main young actors—all pre-teens and teens—as they at first fight, then bond, then become close friends on a quest that has no less a goal than to—yes, cliché alert, but in this case and in this film, the clichés simply do not matter because the film is so good—save the world from being taken over by evil forces and falling into doom, chaos, destruction, apocalypse and infinite darkness—you know, not far from where things stand now. All four young actors are wonderful in this film—above-average, strong, confident, acting at a level far above their years, and never wavering from their core, inherent characters and characterizations. All four are able to ably act amid swirling scenes of special, visual, digital and computer-general effects; all four are able to handle physicality, battle scenes, fight scenes, hand-to-hand combat, riding horses quite believably, running, climbing, falling—and exhibiting a range of emotions, from anger and bullying to compassion, understanding, generosity, commitment, responsibility, evolving likability and even heroism. All of this is always much to ask from any actor—kid or adult—but these four actors handle all of the script’s and story’s multi-layered requirements so skillfully, ably, creatively and confidently, they carry the film on a high professional level that audiences will cheer. And Taylor’s and Dorris’ bullies slowly change from schoolyard thugs to, eventually, welcome and likable heroes, and, no, that’s no real spoiler for the film. It’s more of an acknowledgement of strong acting, character development and characterization development by these two actors in the film. Chaumoo’s Bedders is akin to Jerry O’Connell’s kid in “Stand by Me” or the somewhat-outcast chubby-but-likeable kid in “Goonies”—cute, lovable kids who are so wide-eyed, innocent and eager to please, some kids and adults stupidly take them for granted—or don’t take heed of them at all. Chaumoo plays Bedders as such an earnest, good-natured kid who actually believes in real magic, the supernatural, wizards and other-world phenomenom while stilling being grounded and smart, well, everyone will just want to hug him, he’s so adorable.
However, it’s Louis Serkis’ heroic, continually endearing portrayal of Alex Elliott that carries the film, despite, again, the strong ensemble lead cast of actors. Serkis plays Alex, again, steadily, strongly and heroically, but without any un-needed heavihandiness, over-reaching, over-confidence, macho bravura or posturing, smirking or arrogance. Although Alex is the rightful heir to Excalibur and, yes, the chosen one to save the world from evil and the leader of his rag-tag army of knights, Serkis wisely never lets Alex’s esteemed position in the story and the movie overtake a needed, consistent and required likability for the character. Serkis keeps Alex grounded, down-to-earth—and, you know, normal. Several times he tells Merlin or Bedders or even himself that he’s just a normal 12-year-old, that he’s not up to the task of suddenly saving the world, and that he’s, well, simply a middle-class London schoolboy. That groundedness, that normalcy, of course, makes Alex just more humble, more heroic, and more relatable. As a result, moviegoers will consistently like, support, understand and root for Alex, thus providing the needed lead-character support base and foundation that will engage viewers, carry the movie and story, and move the movie and story consistently forward. Louis Serkis’ Alex is reminiscent of Chris Pratt’s similarly grounded but heroic—and chosen one—lead character in the “Guardian of the Galaxy” movies. Kudos to Louis Serkis for a strong performance here—and it’s obvious that his equally-talented dad possibly maybe offered a few strong acting tips to his son here and there. If Andy Serkis did coach his son, that’s great and it shows; if Andy Serkis didn’t, and this is a naturally-born performance, well, then that’s another level of kudos and congrats to extend to Louis Serkis!
It’s another testament to Louis Serkis’ strong acting as Alex in “Kid” that Angus Imrie and Patrick Stewart as Merlin almost—but not quite—steal the movie in several strong scenes that they’re in as the conniving, diabolical (in a good way) and mysterious Merlin, but Serkis maintains his lead character presence and talent. Imrie, a young actor in his early twenties who ably passes for a 16-year-old teenager, and Stewart, everyone’s favorite go-to lead/hero/Shakesperean/wizened sage/just-plain-great-actor actor for so many differing roles for decades now in so many varied films and television shows, are just wonderful as the younger Merlin and the older Merlin, respectively. It’s yet another original, inventive story plotline to have Merlin appearing in three forms, and the various iterations of the wizard help the plot, offer some insight and guidance for the mortal kids, provide some needed comic relief, and help the kids in general in their quest. Merlin thus provides several story, plot, character and movement purposes in “Kid”—just like Merlin is supposed to provide these elements in any King Arthur tale. Because, right at the center of all that is King Arthur and at the center of all of the Arthurian legends, all roads, paths, trails, mazes, puzzles, vortexes, portals and highways and byways always lead straight back to…Merlin. The wizened wizard is just as important to all of the Arthurian tales as Arthur, or, in the case of “Kid,” Alex Elliott. Merlin is always there in “Kid” to lead, fight, educate, guide, mentor, lecture and generally help out, and Imrie and Stewart are up to the task in the film. Both actors get to deliver some quite intelligent and insightful ruminations and summarizations on the very nature of good and evil, heroes and villains, and adhering to, respecting and following the strict codes of the Knights of the Round Table and the keepers and guardians of Excalibur, and these passages are rightfully delivered seriously and dramatically, providing a moral heft and foundation for all of the concurrent fun and excitement on the quest. Stewart, in particular, presents a take, a variation, on the adult Merlin that is indeed original—his older Merlin is something like a seemingly-forgetful grandfather who presents himself as disheveled, dowdy, forgetful and frumpish—but who all really know is actually wise, insightful and perceptive—and powerful—beyond belief. Stewart presents this balance of whimsy and seriousness in a performance that just absolutely delights and entertains, and more power indeed to him for this characterization. It’s just always a pleasure to watch Patrick Stewart perform.
And, additionally, Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson shines along with everyone else as a perfectly scary, creepy, at times flat-out terrifying Morgana, all darkness, slithering snake-like movements, rabid-cat stalking movements, darkened eyes, evil looks, scratchy and otherworldly—and sound-effects-enhanced—wicked voice, draped in hellish, slithering vines, dark and droopy cloaks and clothing, and complete nastiness. Ferguson plays Morgana with the required mix of evil seductiveness, evil evilness, demon-possessed flat-out craziness, and, at times, flat-out monstrous creature-feature fright-fest ghoulishness. Morgana in the film is scary, and there’s no room there for humor or lighthedness, and Ferguson’s Morgana is indeed scary—and that’s just how it should be. She is the dark and bad counter to the bright and good kids and wizard, and the conflict is duly noted and well-presented.
It’s this balance of whimsy and seriousness, humor and drama (but not too dramatic), funny business and serious business (but not too serious) and inventiveness regarding the Arthur legend and a concurrent complete respect and admiration for those legends that raise the quality level of “The Kid Who Would Be King”—the movie can be funny, and lighthearted, but the movie can also be suspenseful, somewhat dark and foreboding, scary, tense and suspenseful. And, most importantly along these script, story and dialogue lines—the movie is not a parody, is not a satire and does not belittle, bemoan, put down, insult or tear down the basic, honored and respected—and literary—foundations and bases of the over-arching Arthurian legend, and this greatly keeps the film somewhat serious, respectable and mature. The film takes the Arthurian legend seriously, and the film is still firmly rooted in the time-honored tales of Arthur, Excalibur, the Knights of the Round Table, Morgana and the Lady in the Lake. Serious fans of great, grand and epic Arthurian legends will see all of these favourites here in “Kid”—taken seriously, respected and honored, as it should be. Again, this keeps “Kid” at a quite respectable level. The kids, on their quest, are told by Merlin that they must abide by the time-honored knight’s code of conduct—and that adheres directly to many of the more well-known storytelling aspects of the classic Arthurian stories.
All of these elements stem of course from smart, confident, engaged, intelligent and somewhat serious-minded writing and direction from the film’s clever writer and director, Joe Cornish, a multi-talented English comedian, writer, producer, stand-up, performer and overall entertainer. Cornish has not only written that smart, insightful, funny, dramatic and enjoyable film, he has directed the film well, also. Cornish beautifully handles a bevy of talented young actors and two other actors and a CGI owl who play Merlin and provide the storytelling core and foundation along with Alex; he provides that right balance of humor and drama, action and adventure, fantasy and reality, legend and inventiveness regarding that legend; he has written a script that is consistently smart, insightful, funny, dramatic and adventurous; he provides clever wordplay and dialogue and character quirks; he never lets the kids get buried too far in the overly-cliched boy-who-cried-wolf gimmick; his adults in the film are equally likeable, relatable and even understanding to a degree; there are scenes of action, adventure, chases, horse riding and physicality that are all handled well and never handled clumsily; and all along, Cornish seems to be trying hard to make his film likeable—but he also isn’t trying too hard, because he has faith in his above-average script, dialogue, acting and production, set and art design.
Regarding those latter points of production, set and art design, “Kid” exels in these areas, too. The film’s scene locations and sets are varied, and the film moves smoothly move from these varying types of locations, and all are designed well in terms of art, construction and, in many scenes, flat-out breathtaking beauty. The locations move from a solid, believable middle-class home to an average, ordinary downtown London junior high school to Morgan’s wholly hellish and nightmarish underworld of darkness to darkened forests well-suited for exciting horse chases to scenic, beautiful bucolic British countryside locations of castles, inns, small towns, fields, towers and pastoral landscapes that showcase the best of Britain’s still-existing pristine, Old World—Medieval, even—country.
And in terms of special effects production design, Morgan’s army of darkness—partly-skeletal dark-black demon knights on demon horses literally emerging blazing and on fire up through the ground, growling and scowling and snarling with eyes of fire and crazy-scary long swords of bright orange fire against dark-black backgrounds—is just appropriately terrifying! Morgana’s demon army at times recalls Sam Raimi’s skeleton soldiers from hell from the “Evil Dead” movies or several of Peter Jackson’s demon armies from the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” movies.
And the kids heroically rise to the challenge to fight the demons—never wavering, never turning back, and always pressing on to bravely and courageously save the day. Cornish doesn’t stoop to dumb easy-out humor or cliched action-adventure retreats when the demons arrive—instead, the kids, as noted, bravely take on the demons, with Merlin’s help, of course, and they figure out a plan, strive to accomplish that plan, and ultimately arrive at some quite quirky and inventive means to raise their own army of knights, fight the demons, fight Morgana, find that portal to the underworld, save the day, seize the day, and live to fight yet another day.
Joe Cornish and his own army of good cast and crew, and his producers, all deserve their own level of praise and filmic knighthoods for producing and presenting such an enjoyable, intelligent, positive and entertaining family film—again, a family film for people of all ages.
Near the end of “The Kid Who Would Be King,” the adult Merlin, his gallant mission accomplished yet again and who is about to leave this mortal coil for the supernatural world yet again for who knows how long and for who knows where exactly, gets a dramatic chance to tell Alex, Bedders, Lance and Kaye just how incredibly important their heroic mission is, why they were the chosen ones, why they had to do what they did, what that meant to the world—and, most importantly, just why the world needs heroes, why those kids need to be heroes every day, and why on earth, and why on everywhere else, good always needs to triumph and decisively win out over evil. The words are perfect, the setting is perfect, the morals and meanings and lessons are perfect, and this scene, and the scene that immediately follows it, are a powerful, emotional end to this inventive, modern-day take on the legend of King Arthur, the sword in the stone Excalibur and the Knights of the Round Table. To know and understand that the world’s and history’s heroes do not have to come from birthright, so-called royalty, silver spoons, blue blood, money, deities, gods or politicians, and that true heroes come only from within one’s own true heart, and to know and understand that there have always been heroes, that heroes exist today and that true heroes will indeed exist in the future is a wonderful—and true—message to send to filmgoers, and a positive message that will have filmgoers leaving “The Kid Who Would Be King” with a renewed sense of hope for the future. And if we need a little bit of movie magic—and perhaps a little bit of Arthurian legend magic—to be given that sense of hope, well then, so be it, make it so, and thank goodness for once and future symbolic kings.