Could all the problems of the world, or at least of the U.K., be solved by children’s movies? Paul King’s Paddington films are among the most cogent anti-Brexit narratives one could find at the cinema in the last couple years, and now Joe Cornish has submitted his own aspirational tale of childlike goodness in a world gone haywire. The Kid Who Would Be King, Cornish’s first film since the sleeper cult hit Attack the Block (2011) similarly gets its kicks imagining spectacular events of mythic proportion playing out against the most humdrum of London backdrops. But this time, rather than intergalactic terror, he saddles a group of middle schoolers with the legacy of none other than King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. “Gone on quest to save Britain,” reads the note young Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) leaves for his mom (Denise Gough). “Don’t worry!”
The salvation of Britain is not just a winking reference to our unstable times — the foe Alex and his friends must face is, we are told, directly linked to current geopolitical events, a disquiet that has allowed the evil Morgana le Fay’s (Rebecca Ferguson) influence to once again creep into the world. Early in the film, we pass by a newsstand; “WAR! GLOOM! FEAR! CRISIS!” read the headlines. We needn’t see a CNN news feed to confirm it — life at Alex’s school is scary enough, with constant torment of him and his best friend Bedders (unendingly sweet newcomer Dean Chaumoo) by the relentless bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kay (Rhianna Dorris). The strong are preying on the weak, and there’s no justice to be found.
So, while being chased by Lance and Kaye, Alex stumbles across a sword lodged in a stone amid a forlorn wreck of a construction site; he pulls it out, not quite knowing what his ability to do so portends. Soon he is visited by the wizard Merlin, who appears to him first as a dramatic teenage boy (Angus Imrie), then as a hawk, then as an old man (Patrick Stewart). Merlin informs him of his destiny as king, and sensing that his estranged father is behind all of it and this adventure will finally unite them, he knights Bedders as well as the two bullies who torment him, hoping they can be redeemed by knighthood and save England’s soul in the meantime.
The Kid’s proposed steps to such redemption — honor, teamwork, and adhesion to a chivalric code — may seem a little simple in the face of such real-world strife. But this is a kids’ movie through and through, and it’s objective is to charm, not create policy. While the film’s guileless sense of decency may throw off fans of the kookier, more teenage-oriented Attack The Block, Cornish is offering a kind of movie they just don’t make anymore — expansive live-action adventure tales unabashedly aimed at young people, not the adults charged with taking them to the cinema. There are a few too many cheeky nods to other movies (Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and just about any other epic tale Cornish is riffing on), but the one it most resembles is The Goonies: a story of adolescents proving themselves out in the wide, dangerous world. The film builds to an anarchic set piece, in which a school full of rambunctious children defend the world from evil while the adults literally disappear off the face of the earth. It’s the closest thing Cornish comes to a real-life prescription for what ails us, and it goes down pretty well.