Ask any 20-something who absorbed the rings, spells and talking lions that dominated fantasy cinema – and, in some of those years, outright cinema – in the aughts, and they’ll tell you their cultural upbringing involved stories of companionship, fortitude and self-discovery pervading some of the medium’s most imaginative worlds.
I would know; I’m one of them. The adaptions of Tolkien, Rowling and Lewis achieved new standards for the fantasy genre, particularly in the case of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, an enticing gateway drug that demolished what we previously thought of as large-scale action in film, even as we were maybe a few years away from discovering film film.
Joe Cornish, the writer-director of “The Kid Who Would Be King,” realizes that too. In his modern retelling of the age-old tales of King Arthur, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table, he uses the archetypes and fantastical flourishes found in “Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” not just as influence, but as the recipient of a love letter to those films that made statements with critics, at box offices and in the larger history of cinema.
The lore of those worlds and this one are one-in-the-same; Cornish doesn’t whisk us away to a land of elves, talking animals and everyday magic. The impact is a movie of refreshing taste with a touch of nostalgia that Millenials can now watch with children of their own. The friendship between our pint-size heroes Alex and Bedders is akin to that of Frodo and Sam, and we’d believe it if the evil villainess this time around spent her centuries of existence devouring a version of “Mein Kampf” that Voldemort wrote.
The premise: fantastical. The setting: comparatively toned-down modern-day Britain, one even more eerily familiar than we expect going in. Newstands are dotted with the words “gloom,” “war” and “political division,” hinting at a country in disarray (sound familiar?) and thus ripe for the taking by Rebecca Ferguson’s demonic Morgana, who’s been gathering her forces and strength after being defeated by Arthur and Merlin centuries ago.
Arthur isn’t around anymore, however, so another hero worthy of Excalibur must come along and pull it from the stone. Enter Alex, a pint-size schoolboy with all the makings of a hero-to-be that we’ve been taught by both film and literature—unassuming, initially uncaring and undoubtedly good-natured.
To boot, he’s also got some daddy issues.
So when he finds the sword in a partially crumbled bit of cement infrastructure, we already know the journey he is about to go on. Joining him is a younger Merlin (Angus Imrie, uncannily channeling Eddie Redmayne in both appearance and physical quirks; a much more recognizable name plays the older, de-cloaked version of the wizard, in what is far too seldom a transformation for clearly the most well-known actor in this film) who is as strange and vague as we grew up reading about.
Miles are traveled, mythology is explored, enemies of the most perfectly acceptable CGI variety are fought and, of course, woods are traversed through (can you think of a more universally acknowledged fantasy trope?).
And while the story’s main notes are easy to predict, Cornish at some points subverts Fantasy Gospel with his own unorthodox melodies, diversions in the well-traveled path that double as Cornish presenting his own views on how we absorb stories of good versus evil. He makes fully aware “The Kid Who Would Be King” exists in a world where some our greatest fantasy stories, and their cultural impacts, also reside, allowing him the flexibility to stay one step ahead of where we think Alex and his friends will end up.
Does it have the complexity of a “Rings” or “Harry Potter” tale, narratively, emotionally or otherwise? No. But the modern remixing of one of our oldest cadre of fantasy characters serves as an example of the genre’s timelessness, especially as it firmly occupies the sweet spot between appropriation and fan fiction.
Meanwhile, Electric Wave Bureau’s synthesizer-infused score helps make the convincing case “Kid Who Would Be King” is an example of what Amblin/Spielberg story looks like had it picked up “The Magic Tree House” instead of Arthur C. Clarke.
What must be Cornish’s greatest accomplishment, though, is also his most subtle. Somewhere amid the magic and modern quirks (Merlin wearing an oversized Led Zeppelin shirt lends itself to all sorts of readings), “The Kid Who Would Be King,” in form and function, becomes a vehicle of empowerment for younger viewers, an urging for them to take control of their future.
Is the underlying message mere coincidence in an age when more Millenials are leading movements for change or becoming political leaders? It’s unclear, but we wouldn’t want it to be in a movie like this anyway. It would be akin to Frodo saying, “Tear down this wall” at the gates of Mordor.
Instead, what we previously thought of as the movie navigating around certain plot traps that it otherwise would have fallen for (specifically: Where are the grown-ups when all this madness is unfolding?) becomes something thought-out and meaningful in retrospect; something more of apiece with appealing to a 2019 audience, but also still very much in keeping with the fantasy influences it’s paying homage to.
If the 2000s are now a period whose cinematic footprints are ripe for mining nostalgia, “The Kid Who Would Be King” might be the first to take that to heart. It makes for a delight of a film in the doldrums of January, and a confirmation of the joy some of us took in watching spellbinding stories of rings and wands unfold on the big screen.
“The Kid Who Would Be King” is rated PG for fantasy action violence, scary images, thematic elements including some bullying, and language
Starring: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Denise Gough, Dean Chaumoo and Tom Taylor
Directed by Joe Cornish