For a full 90 minutes, “The Kid Who Would Be King” manages to get two things right: It recycles the time-worn story of “King Arthur” for the umpteenth time while giving it an original spin and comes up with a semi-family-friendly film that is neither animated nor reliant on comic book origins. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the movie has a two-hour running time and the last 30 minutes obliterates all of the possible goodwill it had previously amassed. Although not blatantly obvious, anyone looking for it can peg the multiple jabs at the U.K. “Brexit” situation, a subplot that has no business being in a children’s action fantasy flick.
When it was revealed that writer/director Joe Cornish would be helming this production, the expectations became high, not so much for his screenplays for “Ant-Man” and “The Adventures of Tintin,” but rather for his genre-bending “Attack the Block” from 2011. One of the very few sci-fi movies starring minors that received an R-rating, “Attack” melded the urban gang and space invader milieus to great effect, and although it tanked at the box office, it has since garnered a huge cult following. Think “Gremlins” meets “Ghostbusters” minus the cutesy humor with more carnage. Given that “Kid” is rated PG and is trying to appeal to families and preteens, Cornish had to tame down his sensibilities, and he only succeeds intermittently.
Cornish’s protagonist is Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy), the only child of a single mom (Denise Gough) and a never-seen father who split the scene years ago without explanation. Alex’s feelings of abandonment have understandably morphed into resentment toward his mother and led to aggressive behavior at school.
Though small for his age, Alex won’t shy away from confrontation, and to that end, challenges two bullies (Tom Taylor as Lance and Rhianna Dorris as Kaye) picking on his meek and chubby friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo). Not used to being stood up to, Lance and Kaye corner Alex at a construction site near their school seeking retribution, and it is there where Alex removes the iconic Excalibur sword from a block of cement thus identifying him as the rightful heir to King Arthur.
The freed sword marks the start of the fantasy portion of the film and the arrival of two iconic figures. First is Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), Arthur’s evil half-sister who resides in the bowels of the earth and isn’t seen in full until around the halfway point. Doing her bidding in the meantime is a bottomless supply of apocalyptic horsemen who emerge from the ground on fire at night. They look dangerous and imposing, but as we soon find out they can be vanquished with relative ease.
Providing all of the much-needed comic relief is Merlin, Arthur’s mystical sidekick played as a teen by Angus Imrie, as a senior by Patrick Stewart and on occasion a CGI owl. Instead of merely flashing a wand and/or waving his arm and spouting some mystical mumbo-jumbo, Merlin goes through a series of exaggerated physical gyrations that suggest yoga by way of arcane ’80s robot dance moves. The first time we see this happen, it’s novel and engaging, but the 40th or so such instance it is just plain annoying.
The movie hits its narrative peak when Merlin leads the four prepubescent warriors from London to Cornwall on foot where they will finally crush Morgana at her castle lair on a remote island. Along the way, they make an interesting pit stop at Stonehenge, have their first encounter with the Lady in the Lake and go to a second-hand knight clothing store where they trade in their parkas, jeans and sneakers for semi-authentic metallic battle garb.
Before the opening credits have even finished, Cornish includes an impressive animated Cliffs Notes summary of the King Arthur story that provides just enough but not too much of a primer for anyone unfamiliar with the story. Perhaps not trusting his instincts Cornish then repeats these bullet points ad nauseam for the entire length of the movie. In addition to being redundant, these regular needless reminders grind the flow of the narrative to a halt. As bad as this is, it’s nothing compared to the final half hour in which the movie goes off the rails and takes on the air of “Home Alone,” complete with wacky booby traps and hundreds of preteen children wielding real swords.
Obviously looking to fill the void left by the conclusion of the “Harry Potter” franchise (which is mocked regularly throughout), Cornish and Fox Studios take a kitchen sink/endless salad bar type of approach to the production. It might work for easier to please, “more is better” audiences, but for most, it will be a largely joyless and endless slog. This is definitely something you can pass on or wait for the video.