Joe Cornish misses the 80s. He may only have two directorial credits under his belt, but they are both locked staunchly in that Amblin-tinged past. It’s not just that both Attack the Block and recent The Kid Who Would Be King feature Kids on a Mission—the staple configuration of 80s touchstone cinema—but at their core, they evoke the same sentimentalities.
This is largely welcome. One of the most notable gaps in modern Hollywood is in the shape of that old school earnestness. It’s been making a comeback of late (especially on TV), but it’s hard to find filmmakers that understand it’s more than just putting child actors in graphic tees and having them experience grownup feelings. You can’t just tell viewers that characters are changing; you have to show it.
That is a mechanic that Cornish seems comfortable with. Talking about how the tremendous Attack the Block achieves this would be a piece all on its own, but it is something that he manages in The Kid Who Would Be King, too. Based loosely in Arthurian legend, Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is bullied incessantly at his school, but despite this, he has no problem standing up for himself. At least at first.
His problem isn’t the bullies—not at its core, anyway. The problem is the world surrounding them, a society that enables and empowers those that abuse their reach and step on those that can’t defend themselves. And this is where Cornish grounds the film upfront in the present. He doesn’t need 80s pastiche; this is a world stuffed with modern iterations of timeless faults as the global political climate crumbles, the global literal climate withers, and fascists and authoritarians walk hand in hand into a grim ending. It stinks of Brexit and Trump and general immorality.
That, however, eventually becomes the film’s problem as it loses this well-structured specificity and starts to become looser and looser with this milieu. The malaise simmering under the story’s surface gives way to a rambunctious and mostly charming romp through time and space and general fantasy things. Cornish’s directing keeps things brief when need be and moving at a refreshing clip, fast enough to keep the seams a blur.
It’s unfortunate that this even has to happen, though. There’s plenty of originality to be found in this Arthurian twist (the sweded defenses in the climax are *chef kiss* perfect), but it’s all stacked up in particular points. Like a cake unevenly frosted, it vacillates between delectable and passable. Handled more deliberately, it could have been a smooth and whipping ride throughout.
Part of it is due to the acting. That’s not to say it’s bad; these kids are almost categorically fantastic. But none of them seem to be synced up with the film’s tone. The stakes are consistently low in the way that you always know things will work out in kids’ summer films, but they hoist them up as dire consequences. It’s a schism that pulls you away from enjoying either the fantastical spectacle or emotional grounding of the characters at any given time or at the same time. You’re constantly at odds.
Perhaps the only one of the cast to fully immerse himself into the film’s intentions is Angus Imrie as Merlin (in teenage form). He unrelenting commits to his outlandish premise, unironically performing his wild flourishes as he casts spells or flops around as he changes in and out of owl form. It’s like he’s the only one that really wants to be playing D&D and everyone else is wondering what the dice do.
Despite this, the film manages to succeed. It might go on a bit long and never quite feel like it gets around to finding an original purpose in the characters, but it’s a lively journey nonetheless. As far as Kids on a Mission stories go, you could do a lot worse than The Kid Who Would Be King.
Final Score: 7 out of 10