Before 10 minutes passed, “The Kid Who Would Be King” lets you know what it stands for. Dictators and strongmen have risen to power. People are more divided than they have ever been. The world is in danger not just from without but from within. The words “Brexit” and “Trump” are never spoken — the better for director Joe Cornish (“Attack the Block”) to ensure the timelessness of his film — but the ways in which the film mirrors the present couldn’t be more clear. It’s an unempathetic world, getting more so by the second and it would be easy for anyone, perhaps most of all children, to surrender to that cynicism and give up all hope for the future.
But that’s not what Cornish does with “The Kid Who Would Be King,” and it’s because of the optimism his film wields like Excalibur that, whatever its flaws, I believe it to be an important story — one that not only deserves to be told but needs to be told. The world can be unfeeling and cruel, but “The Kid Who Would Be King” explains to its young audience that they don’t have to be, and in its sincerity, it may remind adults of the same thing.
The movie follows young Alex Elliott (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, “Taboo”), a boy living in England who finds himself attacked every day by bullies while he does his best to just make it through the day. Everything changes when Alex finds and draws a sword from a stone, only to learn that it’s Excalibur — “The Kid Who Would Be King” plays it forgivably fast and loose with Arthurian mythology —and that he’s the descendant of King Arthur. No sooner has he discovered his heritage than he learns that he only has four days to prepare himself and his friends for the arrival of Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson, “Mission: Impossible–Fallout”), an evil sorceress bent on subjecting the world to her will.
Even setting aside the bracing optimism at its core, “The Kid Who Would Be King” is admirable for how it encourages its adolescent viewers to identify with its characters even at the darkest moments of their quest. No one on screen is portrayed as perfect and each of them wrestle with demons of their own, yet this doesn’t stop them from becoming heroes. It would have been all too easy to make Alex’s schoolyard tormentors into one-dimensional villains, but despite feints in that direction, Cornish keeps the humanity of each of his characters front and center.
This goes for the battle scenes as well; multiple times throughout the film, Alex and co. feel like they’re in real danger, thanks mostly to the superb design work on Morgana and her minions. The action suffers in other areas, particularly in its disappointingly mundane depiction of magic — a half-baked series of snaps and claps that actively drains the stakes the more it shows up — but it’s doubtful kids in the audience will pay these weaker parts much mind afforded the opportunity to see young people like themselves actually treated as heroes in their own right.
And as if the message couldn’t be any clearer, an elderly Merlin (a delightful Sir Patrick Stewart, “Logan”) all but says it outright: “It will eventually fall to today’s children to push society forward, and to do so, they’ll need to work together and to actively forge empathy where there otherwise is none.” So, would I argue that “The Kid Who Would Be King” could use maybe another pass or two on its script, that one of the characters exists solely to recount what’s already happened and that it’s about 15 minutes too long? Yes, but that’s almost beside the point. If the next generation will be learning from films like this, then maybe there’s a reason to be optimistic.