Eight years is a long time to wait for the sophomore feature directed by Joe Cornish, whose thrilling, class-conscious alien-invasion film Attack the Block paired a Star Wars hero-to-be (John Boyega) with the actor who would soon make Doctor Who a woman (Jodie Whittaker). American moviegoers may meet another future favorite or two in The Kid Who Would Be King, which might not be quite the follow-up that Block fans crave: Where the last film was violent, foul-mouthed fun, this one is as geared to the young as its title suggests. Its modern-day spin on Knights of the Round Table lore will engage fantasy-friendly adults, but will play best if they have a kid or two in tow.
Andy Serkis’ son Louis Ashbourne Serkis stars as Alex, a Londoner approaching his teens in a time of great fear. (Opening scenes overhear BBC newscasts referencing political divisions and strongman leaders, though the film doesn’t alienate anybody by referring directly to Brexit or the bellowing troll across the ocean.) At school, though, life remains as generations of meek students have known it: Alex and his pal Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) are routinely bullied by Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris).
A charming family-friendly adventure.
Somewhere beneath the earth’s crust, an ancient evil is awakening. It’s Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson, of Mission: Impossible), who in this version of the Arthurian saga is the dead king’s evil half-sister, a witch-turned-dragon who swore vengeance when she was defeated centuries ago. “They are divided. Fearful. Leaderless,” Morgana hisses as roots creep ickily around her enlivening form. Nearby, skeleton-soldiers with burning embers for eyes prepare to do her bidding.
This is the kind of myth where no evil awakens without an accompanying opportunity for pure-hearted heroism. Back in the mortal world, Alex yanks a mysterious sword out of a broken concrete support pier. Having grown up with King Arthur stories — before his dad vanished ages ago, he bought the boy a storybook — Alex is pretty sure what he has found. He and Betters, two endearingly ordinary kids, set out to understand how something this extraordinary could happen to them.
Enter Merlin, who has taken a youthful form in order to befriend the sword’s new owner. Angus Imrie brings a scene-stealing physicality to the role, casting his spells in a flurry of hand-slaps and finger-snaps. Attempting to pass himself off as a transfer student named Mertin but hopelessly out of place, he is, as Alex says, the only kid around “more bullyable than us.”
When he’s not transforming into an owl (in a delightful sneeze of feathers) or revealing his elderly form to make Alex take him seriously (Patrick Stewart, wearing wild hair and a Led Zeppelin t-shirt), Merlin handles most of the exposition. Morgan must be found and defeated before a solar eclipse four days hence, he says, and the boys’ only chance of doing that is to team up with their tormentors and go on a quest. Fortunately, each nightfall brings an increasing number of flaming skeleton baddies out of the ground, which makes it easier to convince Lance and Kaye to join the fight. Merlin introduces them to the code of chivalry, gets them outfitted with swords, and brings some trees to life to help them learn to fight.
Some of the perils to come are tonally similar to those in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien trilogy, but Cornish lightens things both in terms of each scare’s duration and by working the modern world into these ancient challenges. One chase requires Kaye to pilot a car through demon-haunted streets; another finds them using the tourist kitsch around Glastonbury as real weaponry.
The action is lively and quick-paced, and then suddenly over — at which point the film gets to hammer down some of its more wholesome messages. By not being adhering fully to their code of conduct, the tween knights have ensured one final, huge battle — a frightening assault that will unite their whole school against the forces of darkness.
That epic showdown is as fun as it is implausible, and it’s not for nothing that school children save the world while the grown-ups stand like zombies or vanish altogether. Patrick Stewart’s Merlin notes in an important scene that the legends of the past are always filtered through unreliable storytellers, fitting the needs of the powerful. “You must write them anew,” he urges his companions — making the same absurd but inevitable leap of faith as today’s parents, who believe their children can fix the hellscape they’re about to inherit.
Production companies: Working Title Films, Big Talk Productions
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Cast: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Dean Chaumoo, Angus Imrie, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, Patrick Stewart, Rebecca Ferguson, Denise Gough
Director-screenwriter: Joe Cornish
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nira Park
Executive producers: James Biddle, Rachael Prior
Director of photography: Bill Pope
Production designer: Marcus Rowland
Costume designer: Jany Temime
Editors: Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss
Composer: Electric Wave Bureau
Casting directors: Nina Gold, Jessica Ronane
Rated PG, 120 minutes