Quick. Lift up the flaps.
Another King Arthur retread? This was my first thought watching the trailer for Joe Cornish‘s The Kid Who Would Be King and probably a main contributor to why its box office was so poor (alongside an American aversion to thick British accents—albeit not nearly as thick as the writer/director’s brilliant debut Attack the Block). We’re barely two years removed from Guy Ritchie‘s acquired taste of a revision and not much further from the gritty magic-less one starring Clive Owen, so mustering enthusiasm isn’t guaranteed. What people didn’t know, however, was that this film ultimately has a lot more in common with The Goonies and other such youthful adventures about unlikely friendships than swashbuckling heroism. It’s exactly what parents from my generation should want to show their kids.
While it provides the so-called “losers” on the bottom rung of the social status ladder an opportunity to prove their worth, there’s also the welcome avenue of change for those who keep them down. Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) and Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) receive a shot of self-esteem to lift themselves off the ground and those who put them there (Tom Taylor‘s Lance and Rhianna Dorris‘ Kaye) earn a redemption arc for their trouble. No one is therefore beyond reproach since we all have the capacity to grow and improve. It’s more important for lessons to be learned along the way than for the fight between good and evil to occur because the latter is meaningless if the victors don’t realize that the hardest work comes in the aftermath.
Who then is worthy of holding Excalibur? Is it the weak-willed Bedders? How about the selfish opportunist fueling his ego through abuse (Lance) or his obedient and no less cruel right-hand woman (Kaye)? One could argue that giving the famed sword to any of these three would actually provide us something worthwhile since it’d be a nice departure from the usual kind-hearted soul who would never dream of putting himself ahead of another, but giving that much power to someone in need of that much improvement is counterproductive. So it’s of course Alex who yanks the weapon out of its stone prison—the kid who volunteered to be bullied in exchange for Bedders’ freedom. It’s the boy who will stop at nothing to save the ones he loves.
Cornish knows how boring it would be to simply let Alex hold the hilt and suddenly become unstoppable, though. There still needs to be enough conflict for him to have to choose his destiny rather than simply let it take control. That’s where his anger and pride come in. The reason he doesn’t just curl up into a ball like Bedders when confronted is because he’s too angry to let himself be a victim. He’s the consummate “good kid” who’s not immune to seeing how the world works. You can only watch as people step on others to get ahead for so long before realizing the game is rigged. You either become like Lance and Kaye by preying upon the weak or you ignore civility and seek revenge.
Because the latter isn’t much better than the former when you factor in the inevitable pain two wrongs deliver, the time is ripe for King Arthur’s evil half-sister to reemerge from her exile deep within the earth. Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) believes Excalibur is her birthright and has been waiting until the memory of Arthur disappeared to be replaced by seeds of unrest. Only in a world without purity could she seize control without the threat of defeat. It’s lucky then that there always seems to be at least one hero ready to stand. Alex didn’t ask to be this person, but he’s willing to embrace the responsibility once Merlin (Angus Imrie) uses his unorthodox magic to reveal the severity of what’s going on. He can save us all.
Here arrive the rules every knight must uphold to be worthy (honor loved ones, help others, etc.) and the circumstances these warriors presently find themselves in. They include a crucial separation between day and night wherein Merlin cannot hold his human form without draining his life force after sunset. The darkness also allows for malicious skeletal creatures to enter our plane of existence with fire swords to kill the chosen king and reclaim Excalibur. It’s an ingenious scenario wherein all humans disappear besides Alex and those he knights. Only they have the opportunity to vanquish these creatures and restore peace before morning. And with a solar eclipse coming in four days to open the gateway wide enough for Morgana to enter, these kids don’t have long to prepare.
Is Alex a descendant of Arthur? Well that’s one plot thread Cornish follows to ensure his hero at least deserves royal ancestry whether or not it’s his to claim. This is about him exiting the shadows of self-imposed invisibility to inspire someone like Bedders to be strong and open the eyes of Lance and Kaye so they can see what they have to offer goes beyond having the muscle to steal lunch money. Before he can be their rock, however, he must discover who his is. Maybe it’s the father who disappeared that always believed he’d become something greater than his position in life or perhaps the mother (Denise Gough‘s Mary) who keeps trying to remind him of that love. It’s time to confront fear rather than succumb.
Where The Kid Who Would Be King really excels, however, is on the periphery of that quest for identity. I’m talking the absurd climactic locale of a school as fortified castle and the juxtaposition of teen knights taking up arms against an evil witch with demon soldiers and sentient tree roots. There’s the joyous hilarity of Merlin sneezing his way into an owl (or another version of himself courtesy of Patrick Stewart), the sweet innocence of Chaumoo’s Bedders’ unwavering excitement, and Taylor and Dorris’ authentic remorse turning towards infectious bravery. Even better, though, is that no one forgets what happens. The lunacy of this stuff happening in some unknown school in Britain isn’t lost on the bystanders caught unsuspectingly in the middle. Their reaction shots are a highlight.
It’s therefore very much a kindred spirit to Cornish’s Attack the Block. Gone are the gruesome murders and R-rated themes, but that sense of under-appreciated and dismissed characters rising to the occasion to put the traits society uses to keep them down as strengths to save the day remains intact. That they use traffic signs as shields and replica armor for aesthetics only augments the playfulness behind the severity of their plight. There’s an unparalleled ingenuity to the way Cornish allows his regular Joes to extricate themselves from sticky situations with only what’s at their disposal. With some luck on their side Alex and the rest prove heroism is about taking the risk to save a stranger. It’s not about vanquishing a monster. It’s about protecting a friend.
 Louis Ashbourne Serkis stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING.
 L-R: Rhianna Dorris, Tom Taylor, Dean Chaumoo, and Louis Ashbourne Serkis star in Twentieth Century Fox’s THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING. Photo Credit: Kerry Brown; TM & © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
 Rebecca Ferguson in Twentieth Century Fox’s THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING. TM & © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.