The Kid Who Would Be King draws gentle adventure from the stone
If Marvel movies are too loud and too violent, this timeless update of the King Arthur tale is an antidote.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
They don't make 'em like this anymore. In a world of hyperactive Avengers and Lego movies, The Kid Who Would Be King seems like a throwback to a simpler time.
This earnest children's adventure -- written and directed by Joe Cornish, who also co-wrote Steven Spielberg's Adventures of Tintin -- is a gentle update of the King Arthur myth. It follows a bullied British schoolkid who pulls a sword from a stone and sets off with schoolmates on a quest to save humanity. Along the way they learn a few lessons, obviously.
The Kid Who Would Be King begins with a storybook in an attic, which is fitting since it feels like a film that could have been made at any time since the 1960s. Even on first viewing, it feels like you've watched it on every national holiday since you were 5. Patrick Stewart plays Merlin, but it's a role that could have been played by any distinguished (aka elderly) English actor.
The film's vaguely timeless feel is ironic given the awkward timing of its release. The Kid Who Would Be King opens in the shadow of The Lego Movie 2, with the final How to Train Your Dragon movie, The Hidden World, swooping in fast. Strangely, Kid opened in the US before its natural home in the UK, where it might have built some sympathetic word of mouth. As it is, the US box office has been lackluster.
I saw The Lego Movie 2 and The Kid Who Would Be King in the same weekend, and it was an instructive experience. The Lego sequel is a hyper-kinetic, CG-animated meta-narrative with catchy songs for the kids and irony-drenched pop culture references for the grown-ups. It's noisy, brash, over-stimulating and ultra-modern.
The Kid Who Would Be King, by contrast, is a charming tale of schoolchildren and ancient myths. For some kids (and parents), it's a great antidote to the deafeningly bombastic toy adverts currently dominating the box office. For others, the movie won't stand a chance.
The choice to team up Alex not with his best friend but with school bullies is intriguing and adds tension to the adventure. These delinquent kids have neither the menace nor the sympathy of the ne'er-do-wells in 2011's Attack the Block, which Cornish also helmed. That film subverted and refreshed the 1980s Goonies-style kids movie formula and was all the more entertaining for it, while Kid Who Would Be King sticks a little too close.
It feels a bit churlish to say anything bad about this latest slice of Arthurian adventure, given how sincere it is. And in the face of loud, violent rivals like any
film, The Kid Who Would Be King's lack of stakes or intensity could actually be seen as a selling point.
Still, it's frustrating that Cornish imposes rules on the film that mean the best characters disappear for great stretches of time. The marquee names Stewart and Rebecca Ferguson, but they're barely in it. Ferguson's role is basically a voiceover, with her face appearing on screen for about 10 seconds in total before transforming into an unmemorable CG-winged beastie.
Stewart's absence is less of a problem because while he's not around, Merlin is embodied by a younger actor in order to sneak into Alex's school. Playing this younger Merlin, the gangly and strutting Angus Imrie is the best thing about the film, adding a jolt of endearingly silly entertainment every time he appears. But even he's continually snatched away by Cornish's insistence on making Merlin disappear at night.
That means the kids must face the bad guys alone as they journey to confront the evil sorceress Morgana. An early chase involving flaming horsemen is exciting, although unfortunately the undead knights prove all too easy to defeat. The lack of menace or peril makes the quest more of a meander, especially with the gap that should have been filled by big, bad Morgana. Fortunately, the climax does briefly kick the action into higher gear with a delirious battle scene somewhere between St Trinians and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.
Following the failure of the streetwise makeovers King Arthur and Robin Hood, The Kid Who Would Be King may mean that the sword of big-screen adaptations stays in the stone for a bit. But that's OK. You can enjoy this movie anytime you're sick of Marvel.
The Kid Who Would Be King opened in the US on Jan. 25 and opens in the UK on Feb. 15.