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Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Kid Who Would Be King

I honestly wish I could be more enthusiastic than I am about The Kid Who Would Be King.  It has all the makings of a great youth adventure story, and it even manages to be smarter than you might expect, tackling some adult issues like the current world and political times.  But the movie is ultimately uneven, and never quite fires on all cylinders.  It's not bad by any means, and kids of the right age (I'd say around 10 or so) will love it.  It just never reached the point of inspiration where I found I could fully embrace it.

For our young hero, Alex Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of actor Andy Serkis), life is not easy.  His dad left home years ago, leaving him and his single mom (Denise Gough) to fend for themselves in a world that seems increasingly bleak.  The headlines on the newspapers that Alex sees every day on his way to school scream disaster for London, with scandals, political strife, and an overall sense that only dark days are ahead for the young generation.  If that's not bad enough, he has to spend each school day dealing with local bullies, Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), who torment Alex and his loyal best friend, Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), every chance they get.  Naturally, the adults just don't seem to understand.  His mom, while sweet and supportive, already seems to have the world on her shoulders, and when Alex tries to stand up to his bullies, he ends up with detention. 

Just when it seems like the bleakness of the world around Alex will consume him, he finds an old sword stuck in a concrete slab at a construction site.  Much like the story of King Arthur from a book his dad gave him before he left, Alex pulls the sword out, and quickly discovers that it is the legendary sword Excalibur, and that it has chosen him to save not just London, but the entire world.  It seems that Arthur's half-sister, the evil sorceress Morgana Le Fay (Rebecca Ferguson), has been waiting underground for a time when goodness and the will of men was weak enough for her to rise once again with her army of undead soldiers, and conquer the world.  Given the current political and social climate, the time is right for Morgana to return to the surface, and conquer and enslave the people.  She will rise during the next solar eclipse, which is only four days away, and Excalibur is the only weapon strong enough to defeat her.  Alex has been chosen to wield the legendary sword, and must now gather an army to hold back Morgana's forces.

Alex immediately enlists the help of his friend Bedders, but he also turns to Lance and Kaye, because they are the strongest kids he knows, and he remembers how King Arthur had the ability to make his enemies into allies who would fight alongside him.  Taking the legend to heart, Alex and his friends begin training for the battle to come.  I like what the movie tries to do here, having Alex's greatest strength be his ability to unite people, even those who initially do not like him.  Unfortunately, the idea is held back by the somewhat generic script.  We never quite get the sense of bonding between Alex, Bedders, Lance and Kaye, which I think makes up the heart of the film.  They are supposed to grow closer through the experiences and battles that they encounter, but writer-director Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) never quite creates a sense that these four kids are uniting.  They help each other, and fight alongside one another, but I kept on waiting for the scene where they truly open up to each other, and it never appears.  The performances of the kids are fine, but they're held back by the script never going deep into their characters and their relationship.

Of the young heroes at the center of the story, the only one who stands out is the wizard Merlin, who usually takes the form of a gangly and awkward teen played by Angus Imrie.  He also can turn into an owl, and sometimes appears as an aged old man portrayed by Patrick Stewart.  But it is Imrie's performance as the young Merlin who grabbed my attention, and pretty much stole the whole movie.  He enters the movie as a new student at Alex's school named "Mertin", and then pretty much guides the kids on their adventure, while also holding down a job as a cashier at a fried chicken joint.  The way Merlin has been written, as well as Imrie's performance, hint at a much more fun and spirited movie than what we get.  Instead of a rousing adventure filled with oddball characters, we mostly get Alex and his friends seeking out what became of his father.  And instead of memorable fantasy and adventure, we get fairly routine car chases against CG demons who don't look all that impressive or menacing.

I think that's ultimately what disappointed me about The Kid Who Would Be King.  You can see a great and old fashioned adventure movie waiting to come out, but Cornish never quite truly grabs hold and lets his imagination run wild.  Aside from Merlin, the characters are fairly underwritten and interchangeable.  Alex and his friends all have one-note personalities (the brave one, the loyal one, the selfish one who learns to respect others, and the one who acts mean, but is secretly kind of nice), and pretty much never get to evolve much beyond these basic traits.  The movie also never quite seems as funny as it should be.  Sure, the kids name drop some famous franchises like Star Wars, Harry Potter and even the Mario Kart video games, but the script never goes to the next level, and makes any satirical comment on these popular series or their cliches, some of which find their way into this film. 

Again, this is not a bad movie by any means.  It simply is not as exciting or as funny as I would have hoped it would be.  The opening moments hint at a movie that might be kind of topical and smart, which is why it's a shame to see the generic approach that it ultimately winds up taking with its adventure.  This is a movie that should be grand, amazing, and a little silly.  It kind of gets there sometimes, but nowhere near as much as it should.

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