Film Critic Matt Taylor has a look at the upcoming The Kid Who Would Be King, and is stunned by the brilliant cast and stellar direction
Read my interview with Joe Cornish right here on Redbrick Film
Joe Cornish’s second directorial feature has been a long time coming. His last directorial credit was for 2011’s Attack the Block, his debut, that showed him to be a promising filmmaker. Featuring stellar acting from its whole cast (including then-unknown John Boyega), gripping action, and a bucket-load of laughs, the film quickly became a cult classic. His latest effort, fantasy adventure flick The Kid Who Would Be King, is a massive departure from his first film, but, thankfully, is every bit as fun.
The Kid Who Would Be King boldly decides to create itself from a mix of medieval and modern. This is not a decision that has gone down well previously (take a look at Guy Ritchie’s failed King Arthur movie, or the Taron Egerton-led Robin Hood film that bombed just last November) – but Cornish manages to invigorate it with new life, creating an exciting and engaging family film, the kind of which we barely see anymore. It follows Louis Ashbourne Serkis’ schoolkid Alex, who stumbles across King Arthur’s sword Excalibur when on the run from school bullies. After meeting grand wizard Merlin (played fantastically by both Patrick Stewart and Angus Imrie), he is left to go on a quest with his friends and protect the world from the dark sorceress Morgana (the deliciously evil Rebecca Ferguson). If aspects of it feel rather retro, like the ridiculously over the top medieval movies of the 80’s and 90’s, that’s very much on purpose – and it’s glorious.
Good child actors are sometimes hard to come by, which is why it’s so surprising that Cornish has struck not tin, but absolute gold with his casting here. Serkis (yes that’s right, Andy’s son) is a delight as Alex – he’s the everyman, the instantly relatable schoolboy, who’s struggling to get along in the world. He’s having issues both at school and at home with his mum, all of which take a back seat when Alex’s destiny catches up with him. The wonder on Serkis’ face as he’s forced to fight demons with flaming swords and horses, to trek to Cornwall with only three friends and an old wizard, to leave his mum behind and become stronger, is joyous. We’ve all been Alex at one point in our lives, and that’s part of what makes him so enjoyable. Being a knight suddenly entrusted with saving the world is every schoolkid’s dream, up there with being a superspy or a superhero – through Alex, Cornish lets us live out that dream as if we were schoolkids once again.
Alex’s unlikely band of knights are played by Dean Chaumoo, Tom Taylor and Rhianna Doris, and each is fantastic in their own way. Every character gets their moment, whether it’s learning magic or overcoming their greed, every single beat feels earned, and where it perhaps occasionally doesn’t, we’re so caught up in the magic that we don’t really mind all that much. Angus Imrie makes his silver screen debut as Merlin’s younger form, and is absolutely wonderful. The wizard is as crazy as you might expect, but Imrie imbues the craziness with comedy, helped along by Cornish’s fantastic script. Patrick Stewart makes a big impact with his small role as Merlin’s older form, continuing the craziness in a way that only the ex-Professor X can. Rebecca Ferguson has an absolute ball as Morgana, King Arthur’s half-sister who believes she has the right to the throne. While the character of Morgana herself, is perhaps underused, Ferguson takes absolute glee in her villainous role, a marked turn from her previous characters in the likes of The Greatest Showman and the two latest Mission: Impossible movies. Morgana’s motivations are simple but to the point, and an explanation of these via a gorgeous animated prologue at the beginning of the film showcases Cornish’s exceptional direction to a tee.
As with Attack the Block, the action sequences here are superb. While featuring much less blood and swearing, Cornish’s direction of action is even more confident this time around: each sequence is exciting, coherent, and well-acted and shot to boot, featuring some impressive CGI work from DNEG. His use of CGI is perfectly by the book, used as an enhancer rather than as something to rely on, and it looks a good deal better than many other, more mainstream blockbusters. The skeletal warriors of the undead are actually creepier than those featured in Thor: Ragnarok – the first time we meet one of these is genuinely intense, and really pushes the film’s PG rating in a scene reminiscent of Attack the Block’s initial alien encounters. Cornish also achieves the opposite effect to most other action movies; the final action sequence is by far the film’s best. It’s a scene of utter genius, perfectly merging the film’s medieval ideas with those of a schoolboy. Featuring teachers’ cars with benches strapped to the front as battering rams, horse boxes suspended from the ladders of the gymnasium, and swimming pool ropes used as tripwires, the scene is never less than stellar. We’re constantly on the edge of our seats, yet left wearing a massive grin – again, Cornish finds that perfect balance between the two that evades so many other films.
For all its fun, though, The Kid Who Would Be King is a surprisingly political work. Morgana rises now because of the divisions that rock our world; there are clear allusions to issues such as Brexit and Donald Trump, as well as even more implicit references to the aftermaths of various school shootings in America last year, but somehow do not slow the film down at all. Its ultimate message is twofold: one, that we must unite as one human race if we are ever to make progress; and two, that the time is coming when the kids will take over, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to right the ship. It’s a message the world sorely needs right now, and it’s coming from an indie British fantasy flick. Who’d have thought it?
VERDICT: More fun than it has any right to be, The Kid Who Would Be King is a complete delight. Some weaker character moments and an underused villain can be easily forgiven in the grand scheme of things – Joe Cornish knocks it out of the park yet again, and delivers an engaging, exciting fantasy film that carries a fantastic message of unity. One for both the outer adult and the inner child.