Do the Middle Ages hold the key to saving the world? “The Kid Who Would Be King” suggests so. This contemporary, Arthurian-themed adventure encourages kids of today to look to the legends of the past — and to the lessons of medieval chivalry — in their search for a peaceful future.
The British writer and director Joe Cornish, who wrote the screenplays for “Ant-Man” and “The Adventures of Tintin,” is back in the director’s chair for the first time since his 2011 indie thriller “Attack the Block.” Here, he views King Arthur’s court from the vantage point of a divided and leaderless time (a.k.a. present-day England). For the most part, the conceit works, delivering a hopeful tale about the struggle between good and evil in a chaotic world.
“Kid” centers on Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), a British schoolboy who is fed up with the bullies (Tom Taylor and Rhianna Dorris) who have been picking on him and his friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo). He also longs to reconnect with his father, who left behind a book of Arthurian legends before he mysteriously disappeared.
But everything changes when Alex discovers a sword in an abandoned construction site — a sword that turns out to be Excalibur, the blade of lore that can be pulled from the stone only by the “true king.” Can this nerdy little boy possibly be that person? If so, he will have to face off against Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson of “Mission Impossible: Fallout”), an evil sorceress who thrives on the discord that runs rampant in the world.
Spoiler alert: He can. But only by emulating King Arthur, and by teaming up with his tormentors and following the guidance of a strange new schoolmate named Merlin (a delightfully bug-eyed Angus Imrie). Merlin, as it happens, is also a great sorcerer.
Featuring a host of CGI effects — sword-wielding trees, battalions of skeletal monsters, and a serpentine Morgana — “The Kid Who Would Be King” harks back, stylistically, to the work of stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen. And there are other nods to movies of the past: In the address of a fast-food joint, Cornish includes a sly reference to the filmmaker John Boorman, director of the 1981 Arthurian epic “Excalibur.”
But the movie drags a bit when it sends Alex on a quest to find his father. Although this journey — a scenic detour that leads to historic Glastonbury Tor — enables our young heroes to tap into their still-developing strengths, it’s ironic that it seems to lead the director astray from his own storytelling prowess.
Cornish is at his best when Alex and his ragtag group stick closer to home, in an echo of Cornish’s 2011 film, which revolved around a group of high-schoolers warding off an alien invasion. (It may as well have been called “Attack the School.”) Like that (far gorier) film, this one also features a group of young people who put aside their differences to face an adversary. But “Attack the Block” had a raw energy that’s largely missing here — in part due to “Kid’s” PG rating and its younger target audience.
Still, the movie has a kind of optimism that is reflected in the new generation of English thespians in its young cast: Imrie is the son of actress Celia Imrie, and Serkis is the son of actor and filmmaker Andy Serkis. Patrick Stewart — a veteran of Boorman’s “Excalibur” who plays Merlin in his true, i.e., mature, form — represents the old guard.
“The Kid Who Would Be King” holds out no promise of an easy fix for the ills of the modern age. It does, however, suggest that our children may be the once and future kings that save us — but only if they follow the code of their elders.
PG. At area theaters. Contains fantasy action violence, scary images, mature thematic elements, including some bullying, and strong language. 120 minutes.