In The Kid Who Would Be King, you will believe a 12-year-old boy and his band of friends—er, knights—can save Britain. And not just from a magical force of darkness or two, but also from the current divisive times that make us want to escape into fantasy films like these in the first place.
Fans of John Huston may find the title of this film a bit misleading. Yes, our main character is named Alexander as a fun wink to the 1975 film The Man Who Would Be King, but director/writer Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) has stuffed this family epic with enough Arthurian legends to fill a round table.
Yes, this is a King Arthur story adapted to the modern day (think Harry Potter and Percy Jackson mixed with some Lord of the Rings for good measure), and it opens to a beautifully illustrated kids-book explanation of the classic stories. Only in this film, they’re quite real. And the next “king” has been chosen by the one and only Excalibur.
But our hero is not ready to save Britain. He’s only 12, as he himself argues, and audiences will quickly endear themselves to his personal and country-spanning journey to self-discovery and true leadership. He’s played by Louis Ashbourne Serkis (son of Andy Serkis) who recently appeared in Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. He’s joined by Angus Imrie (Pond Life), who plays a youth-in-disguise version of Merlin, occasionally swapping magical duties with Patrick Stewart (X-Men series, Green Room) his older self.
And then there’s Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible series, The Greatest Showman) as Morgana, the incessantly “med-evil” baddie that Alexander must face and somehow defeat and so on and so forth. She serves her function well as an entertainingly wicked obstacle for the plot, but one of the subtle strengths of The Kid Who Would Be King is its attention to less obvious antagonists: making friends with people you don’t like, dealing with your family’s demons, learning to trust the people you love, the anxieties of an increasingly perilous news cycle, and quite a few more. Like the original tales, the film puts more emphasis on helpful life lessons than it does sheer spectacle. Usually for the better.
The only notable problems with the script (besides some flat dialogue in a few melodramatic moments) are inherent to the film’s bafflingly long runtime of 119 minutes. To its credit, this is an epic family film for the ages and quite an easy recommend for children over the age of six or seven depending on how easily they’re spooked. But it is about as long as a standard fantasy film, and though the pacing works to fill the screen with well-placed set-pieces that keep things energized, some younger kids might lose interest before the credits roll.
For everyone else, The Kid Who Would Be King is a delight all the way through. It has the charming energy of Attack the Block with some of the well-drawn imagery of The Adventures of Tintin, where our band of knights are often captured in frame donning their respective swords against a gorgeous English countryside. It’s an easy canvas to get lost in, and though some of the more predictable beats of the film are a bit too, well, predictable, the fun almost always outweighs the bad. Even when Brexit rears its obvious head.
It’s clear that Cornish and Working Title put real effort into the world building to help set this one apart from its YA genre cousins. The film rarely slips into unwelcome tropes like “chosen one” narratives and prophecies and love triangles. Even the clumsy comic relief (Dean Chaumoo) is given truly wonderful moments of agency, and the two bully characters (Tom Taylor and Rhianna Doris) are given some decent dimension.
Established rules within the film are followed closely, smart set ups result in satisfying payoffs, and it can’t be said enough that Serkis performs as an endlessly charming protagonist, even when the script does him few favors. The film allows him to simply sit in the quiet at times, stewing in his thoughts, which is a true risk considering the attention span of the target audience.
But it speaks to his likability that kids will enjoy putting themselves in his shoes during these tough moments, especially since the story is absolutely unafraid of addressing the real-world events and dangers that can invade and distract from our escapism. Kids will recognize a film that takes their opinions on these topics seriously, which gives the adventure even more purpose beyond the standard formula of good vs. evil.