1. What’s it about?
Despite the title (and its obvious play on Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King), The Kid Who Would Be King is a “reimagining” of The Once and Future King. It’s the King Arthur/Sword in the Stone story in modern-day London with modern-day stakes. Twelve-year-old Alex Elliott and his best friend are freshmen in high school and getting bullied by the self-proclaimed “king” of the school. A sequence of events leads Alex to an abandoned construction site, where he finds a sword embedded in a broken piece of foundation. He pulls it out – and just like that – he awakens Morgana and summons Merlin to his aid. Yep, it’s THAT sword in the stone. Excalibur.
One thing leads to another, Morgana wants to steal the sword and take over the world, and she starts sending demon soldiers up to Earth to hunt down Alex and Excalibur. Except when that happens, all adults disappear and time stands still. Which leaves Alex and his friends alone to fight off Morgana’s evil.
With the help of Merlin, his best friend Bedders, and two enemies-turned-knights (the two bullies from school, conveniently named Lance and Kaye), Alex goes on a quest to find his long-lost father, whom he is convinced will provide answers and help.
2. Who’s in it?
The film largely stars a cast of young actors you might not have seen before. Louis Ashbourne Serkis (son of Gollum himself, Andy Serkis) was perhaps the biggest surprise of the movie for me. He’s remarkably good in the leading role and totally believable as the titular “kid,” Alex. He more than carries the weight of the film on his shoulders. But he’s not alone. His “round table” is . . . ahem . . . rounded out with Tom Taylor (Lance), Rhianna Dorris (Kaye), and newcomer Dean Chaumoo (Bedders).
It’s Angus Imrie, though, who chews through the scenery and steals the show. He excels as Young Merlin and is able to provide both the comedy relief and the believability that he’s a wise old soul (in a backwards-aging Merlin) and a younger/older version of Sir Patrick Stewart. It feels like Imrie treated the role as an audition for Doctor Who, and I’d say he knocked it out of the park. Don’t be surprised if he gets the gig in 10-20 years.
The two faces you will most recognize are Sir Patrick Stewart as Merlin, who appears in that form whenever the plot requires some gravitas or serious exposition that only Stewart can provide. He’s not in the film much, but his scenes are well worth the ride.
Rebecca Ferguson also stars as the villain Morgana, though most of the time she’s buried under prosthetics and make-up. The rest of the time? She’s a CGI monster. Again, she’s not actually on screen for very long, and all of her dialogue is delivered in an evil whisper.
It’s incredibly impressive that five relatively unknown kids outshine two such well-known and impressive talents.
3. Will my kids enjoy it?
Very likely. The advance screening I attended was about half kids, and they all seemed to love it (my own two kids included). They laughed at all the right places, they were on the edge of their seats at all the others, and they never seemed to be lost or bored. The comments I overheard on the way out of the theater were all glowing.
Despite many recent films’ attempts to capitalize our nostalgia and re-create the Steven Spielberg joy of 80s kid adventure films, The Kid Who Would Be King actually feels like it delivers. Director Joe Cornish doesn’t slavishly follow the tropes of what he thinks made those films so beloved; he charts a new course and makes the film feel fresh.
This, I imagine, is what The Goonies would feel like if it were made in 2019. At its heart, the movie is a wish-fulfillment film about kids (nerdy, bullied kids) going on an epic quest and saving the world, and it absolutely hits that sweet spot with full force.
But it also avoids the easy trap of telling a story where Alex is the “chosen one” who must use Excalibur to save the world from angry demons. Yes, there’s some of that, but that’s not an incredibly helpful message for a modern young audience.
The movie doesn’t scream “BE A HERO” but rather shows kids that they all can – and should – simply be good people. Whoa. Revolutionary, right?? It’s the willingness of Alex and his friends to be honest, loyal, kind, forgiving, and loving that will help them save the day. Their power comes not from being “chosen” but from being decent. And it’s that decency that helps them heal the rifts (both literal and figurative) that are tearing the world apart.
4. Will I enjoy it?
See above. If you’re a fan of 80s kid adventures, you’ll very likely find yourself enjoying this one very much. I’ll be honest; I wasn’t expecting much based solely on the trailer. But I was right there with the kids, enjoying the heck out of this film.
I was also surprised at how much the film (and writer/director Joe Cornish) has to say here. Sure, there’s the obvious “don’t be a bully” message, but the overriding message is one about the power of positive leadership and what happens in the vacuum created when our leaders fail. Adults will be able to connect the dots too and recognize the pretty blatant commentary on Brexit and the Trump administration. But apparent to everyone is the film’s core belief that the future belongs to kids, and the best thing we can all do (and will eventually need to do) is get out of their way and let them change the world . . . or save it, as the case may be.
5. Do we need to be familiar with the legend of King Arthur?
No. The film fills you in on everything you need to know to understand THIS story. It assumes you’re at least passingly familiar with the legend (or Disney’s The Sword in the Stone), but you certainly don’t need to do any homework in advance.
6. What’s it rated? Anything objectionable?
The movie is directed by Joe Cornish, who broke onto the scene with the R-rated Attack the Block. But The Kid Who Would Be King is very much family friendly. It’s rated PG for “fantasy action violence, scary images, thematic elements including some bullying, and language.” Rebecca Ferguson’s Morgana can be scary for younger children, especially since she spends 2/3 of her screen time enmeshed in the roots of a tree. It’s really rather creepy, and I wouldn’t blame the kiddos from looking away.
There’s a lot of action and sword fighting during the film, but it’s almost entirely against flaming skeleton soldiers on horseback. When defeated, they simply crumble into a pile of bones. There’s no blood at all. However, it’s all kids wielding the swords, which might inspire some mimicry and pretend sword fighting at home after the fact.
The climax of the film takes place in school, and the entire student body is suited up in armor and battling demons. Most of the fighting is Home Alone-esque with booby traps – rather than violent hand-to-hand combat – but it could still be traumatizing for some kids to see scenes of destruction and violence inside a school.
7. When’s a good time for a pee break?
The film is 2 hours long, so it’s more than likely the little ones will need to make a run to the restroom. It’s hard to recommend the best time to duck out because most of the non-action-y parts are usually scenes that advance the plot or feature Young Merlin (who should not be missed).
About halfway through, there’s a sequence where Alex and his companions travel to the legendary home of King Arthur in Tintagel. Once they travel through the Stonehenge portal and begin walking overland, make a run for it. Around the same time, you could also afford to miss the scene where the four kids practice sword fighting against trees that Merlin brings to life. It’s a bit of a training montage that turns south (and is a lot of fun), but it could be missed for the sake of your bladder.