It’s never easy being young, and while it’s a cliché trotted out every couple of decades, this generation might have it the worst. While Generation X endured the vanished promises of the post-Boomer years with self-aware malaise, young people today face a world that is apocalyptic on almost every front while a sociological mood of self-preservation over the common good pervades Western cultures. It is literal Doom and Gloom, as writer/director Joe Cornish splashes across newspaper headlines in his slyly subversive “The Kid Who Would Be King.” Using major studio money, Cornish’s sophomore effort joins the recent “Paddington” movies in blending socially conscious messages within terrifically sharp and entertaining family entertainment, creating a unique moment in British film that hopefully doesn’t end here.
Certainly, the despairing sensation of insignificance that 12-year-old Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) feels, is heightened against the backdrop of a world facing imminent collapse. “The world is not going to change, you have to change,” he’s warned by his principal. Alex is advised by another, “Don’t be a hero, it’s not worth it.” So, it’s not a surprise that when he pulls the legendary sword, Excalibur, out of some stone behind a building site, not only is he skeptical, he’s not quite sure he wants the job of saving the world. Dealing with growing up without a father, and protecting his best mate Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) from bullies is enough for the young man to handle. So, he’ll need some convincing.
Entering the picture in a hilarious, star-making and charming turn is Angus Imrie as Merlin — or rather Mertin, the alias he uses to try and blend in with Alex’s grade school chums. The ancient magician comes bearing news — King Arthur’s old foe and half-sister, Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), is plotting her return from the hellish depths to claim what she believes is her rightful dominion over the world. So, it’ll be up to Alex to pluck up his courage, use King Arthur’s lessons to make allies out of his enemies (bullies Lance and Kaye, played by Tom Taylor and Rhianna Dorris), bring Bedders along, and find his own way to become a worthy leader and save the day.
While the story beats the film follows are not unfamiliar — training sequences, the moment the group is splintered before being brought together again — it’s refreshing the way Cornish deploys them. Where the filmmaker peppers the parallels to the legendary story are unexpected, but it’s the thematic weight beneath it all that makes it special. Morgana’s potential rise from the bowels of the Earth is only possible because the world is divided, and been made weaker and more fractured than ever. It’s a ripe opportunity for a despot to seize power. It doesn’t take much to draw a line to the ongoing Brexit debate, the migrant crisis, the generalized fear of the other being stoked in many quarters, and the rise of far-right politicians. While the younger audiences for the film might not understand the connections, they’ll likely still identify with the atmosphere of unease.
However, this is not to say the film is burdened by these messages. Rather they are cleverly threaded in a film that is otherwise, a rare one-of-a-kind piece of blockbuster entertainment. Though courted heavily by Hollywood following his breakout debut “Attack The Block,” Cornish has been selective about what his next directorial effort might be, turning down “A Good Day To Die Hard,” while sought for pictures such as “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire“ and “Star Trek 3,” that would ultimately go to other filmmakers. His caution was perhaps justified after his screenwriting work with Edgar Wright on “Ant-Man” was scrapped by Marvel at the eleventh hour. It’s been eight years, but Cornish undoubtedly got the conditions he wanted for “The Kid Who Would Be King,” and a budget that’s certainly bigger than his debut, but not outrageous. It has allowed the filmmaker to create a broad, popcorn movie that nonetheless feels handmade and personal.
Cinematographer Bill Pope is not short on experience when it comes to big screen spectacle (“The Matrix,” “Spider-Man 2,” “Men In Black 3”) but it’s his work with Cornish’s friend and occasional collaborator Wright (“Baby Driver,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”) that informs his approach. Yes, there is plenty of CGI and lovely English vistas, but there are no heavily pre-visualised, made-to-impress, third act wonders here. Instead, the climax is a series of smaller, no less engaging setpieces, rooted in character. Cornish is savvy enough screenwriter to know that if characters evolve with the moment, that can do as much as $100 million dollars worth of digital effects. Thus, we have a third act that is pleasantly removed from the studio standard of tentpole movies throwing 75% of the budget at the last twenty minutes. Cornish makes every moment of his two-hour-plus movie count, where the emotional beats crash with as much impact as the furious battle against Morgana’s fiery skeleton hordes (which, incidentally, are quite well designed).
It’s quite something to sit down for a press screening of a film that so resolutely announces that the time is over for the very middle-aged cynics taking notes. “A land is only as good as its leaders,” Alex and his alliance learn, with their journey leading them to finally believe that perhaps they can actually make a difference, and have the strength for the battles that lay ahead in their lives. “The Kid Who Would Be King” is a movie earnestly invested in the next generation, with Cornish and Pope’s camera making no mistake to capture the diversity of faces that will populate the future and strive to make the world a better place. An instant classic, “The Kid Who Would Be King” blows the dust off an old tale, and makes it invigorating and inspiring for viewers who will be forming their own round tables of world-changers for generations to come. [A]