In Joe Cornish’s follow-up to his sci-fi breakout hit “Attack the Block,” the sophomore director mines the rich mythical realm of the legend of King Arthur. But rather than pick up the story in medieval times, “The Kid Who Would Be King” takes place in the modern world, one where our heroes wear school uniforms and, at first, don’t know how to wield swords or ride horses.
“The Kid Who Would Be King” is a charming story of fantasy, pop-culture references and myth-making. It’s a movie with the playful camaraderie of “Goonies” and a few elements from ’80s sagas — like “Labyrinth,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” “The NeverEnding Story” and “Legend” — where young people go on character-building adventures. “The Kid Who Would Be King” even uses a synth-heavy score from Electric Wave Bureau to give the movie that old-school sheen.
Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy) wants to do the right things at school but feels defeated in the face of bullies and everything else wrong in the world. His life changes when he pulls a sword from a stone in a construction site and embarks on a quest with his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) and convinces their two bullies Lance and Kaye (Tom Taylor and Rhianna Dorris) to join their fight against Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), King Arthur’s half-sister who wants to take back Excalibur and enslave humanity.
Cornish, who also wrote the film, peppers references to the Arthurian legend and some meta-commentary about Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” throughout the film. There are funny sequences involving the Round Table and the idea that the Lady of the Lake can appear in any body of water.
Cornish also explores the way pop culture has constructed its own set of rules: that greatness must somehow be passed down the generations like royalty or magical blood. It’s why certain circles of “Star Wars” fans demanded to know the story behind Rey’s parents in the latest sequels. But that hero’s blueprint is not important to Cornish. Instead, his movie shares the lesson that anyone can be a hero, even kids.
Like “Attack the Block,” “The Kid Who Would Be King” captures the feeling of helplessness children may have when dealing with grown-ups. They don’t feel listened to or believed, so they find comfort among their friends. Cornish also nails the present-day sense of worldwide gloom that children see or hear about on their way to school. They know things are bad, even if they don’t fully understand why. Cornish emphasizes the power of sticking together over evil’s efforts to divide people, which is a powerful message to send to a country in the middle of leaving the European Union.
The rapport between the group of young knights feels amicable but soft. There’s no breakout performance like John Boyega’s in “Attack the Block” to lead the band of misfits. Instead, the resident scene-stealer is the younger version of Merlin played by Angus Imrie, who plays the part of an old wizard out of time and in constant need of food with campy aplomb. His exaggerated expressions are on full throttle, especially when casting spells through quick and intricate hand gestures. Somehow, Imrie outshines his counterpart in the role, Patrick Stewart, who shows up looking like Gandalf the Grey and Unkempt.
At times, it can feel like the movie doesn’t trust its younger audiences’ ability to follow the story: The script dumbs down the lines of dialogue, explaining everything even as it happens onscreen. The violence is tame and likely crafted with a PG rating in mind. Rarely do any of the battle sequences featuring large broadswords feel very dangerous at all, yet the film’s offenses are never so egregious as to wear down the viewer completely.
As far as family films go, “The Kid Who Would Be King” feels like a pleasant retro throwback, a lighthearted adventure that’s less frightening than its ’80s counterparts. Even the cinematography by Bill Pope (“Baby Driver”) makes most of the movie’s many dark battle scenes look more lively than foreboding. It’s the kind of film that leaves on a positive note, with a feel-good message and the hope that sometimes good can triumph over evil. In other words, it’s a fantasy movie.