There’s a building visible from the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, as you’re heading south towards LAX airport. It’s the tallest building in the area, as heights are limited due to air traffic. The north facing side of the building is always draped in giant billboards for movies. Typically, it’s for movies that aren’t particularly good, but the studios are desperate for people to see, fearing a box office bomb. I think the best movies I’ve seen advertised in the near five years I’ve lived here were for Bohemian Rhapsody and Deadpool 2. However, most of the time the advertised movies are either mediocre (The Greatest Showman) or downright awful (The Three Stooges).
As the new year turned, the advertising space was reserved for Fox’s new family adventure comedy, The Kid Who Would Be King, about a modern boy in London who discovers the holy sword Excalibur and reforms the Knights of the Round Table by recruiting his adolescent friends. I didn’t have high hopes for the film based on the use of the billboard siding, but it was a very ominous sign when the poster was replaced by one for the upcoming Alita: Battle Angel before The Kid Who Would Be King was even released. A week before it opened, Fox seemingly gave up on the film, resigned to it being a loss. And sure enough, the studio stands to lose a whopping $50 million over it.
So, with nothing better to do this weekend, I decided to give it a look and see if it was as bad as the box office numbers and marketing abandonment would indicate. To my somewhat pleasant surprise, it wasn’t half bad. In fact, despite some structural flaws and a few massive plot holes, this is actually a pretty decent kids movie, perfectly harmless in the grand scheme of things, and it even includes one unexpectedly stunning performance.
Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy, stars as Alex Elliot, a scrawny and somewhat chubby London boy who’s just entered a new school as a first year. He and his friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) are constantly bullied by two bigger kids, Lance (Tom Taylor of The Dark Tower) and Kaye (Rhianna Doris), and the bullying is utterly ignored by the other children and the faculty until Alex takes matters into his own hand and tackles Lance. In typical “downtrodden kid movie” fashion, Alex is blamed for standing up for himself rather than the bullies being punished.
One night, as Lance and Kaye chase him around to get revenge for him daring to defend himself, Alex ends up at a construction site, where he sees a sword stuck in a cement pillar. He pulls it out, and with Bedders’ help, he begins to believe he’s actually found Excalibur, the legendary sword of King Arthur. A lot of coincidences and strange happenings line up with a children’s book about King Arthur left for him by Alex’s missing father. The small spark of fantasy leads Alex and Bedders to believe they’ve been chosen for some great destiny, like Harry Potter or Han Solo.
A few days later, a new transfer student shows up, calling himself “Mertins,” who is really a teenage version of the wizard Merlin. He’s played by Patrick Stewart as a wizened adult, but his main form is played by Angus Imrie in a fantastically spastic comic turn. Young Merlin/Mertins shows up naked and hypnotizes a shopkeeper to give him his Led Zeppelin t-shirt, which he wears throughout the movie, and hopefully educates some of the kids in the audience. By the time he gets to Alex’s school, he’s in full uniform and introduces himself as a “perfectly normal adolescent school child,” and I’m laughing wholeheartedly. Between his wide-eyed zest for every line and his expert-level hand jive to cast his spells, Imrie is an utter delight, one I did not see coming.
Thanks to the book and Merlin’s tutoring, Alex believes he and his father are direct descendants of Arthur himself. Using the magic of the wizard and the sword, Alex recruits Bedders, along with his enemies Lance and Kay – all of whom have names similar to the legendary Knights of the Round table – to travel to Cornwall and seek Alex’s father in order to prepare for a final battle against Morgana (otherwise known as Morgan le Fay), played by Rebecca Ferguson. The mythical half-sister of Arthur who believes she’s the true heir to Excalibur, Merlin describes her as a being of pure “greed, entitlement, and vengeance,” which is coincidentally the title of Taylor Swift’s next album. Morgana herself is mostly cheap CGI, but she provides an easy villain for the adventure, and her undead minions allow the heroes to kill indiscriminately (and comically) without any moral repercussions.
Some of the feel-good lessons are a bit heavy-handed. For example, it’s a plot point for Alex to turn his enemies into allies because the book says Arthur did that. But it’s not realistic. Bullies are bullies and have to be dealt with. It’s exceedingly rare to get a tormentor on your side when it’s just easier for them to kick your ass. At the same time, the moments when Alex has to cope with the truth about his father hit home really hard, and were surprisingly poignant in what is otherwise a no-stakes kiddie adventure. So kudos for that.
A lot of the early circumstances are pretty nonsensical and are glossed over to get to the main story. Like, no one even bothers to ask why a sword got built in to a cement pillar, or if it was a real “Sword in the Stone,” how did it get fashioned into a perfect 3D rectangle to become a building pillar? Because it’s a kid’s movie, none of that stuff really matters, but if you’re an adult watching, it might pull you out of the film too early and make it hard to engage with the eventual adventure.
But really, for what it is, this is a good, wholesome, and somewhat endearing family film. The performances are fine, with Imrie being a real standout. The story, while flawed, is on the whole a positive, and the CGI, while second rate, is still enough to impress the target audience. This is the first genuine flop of 2019, but really, the film doesn’t deserve such an ignominious epitaph.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you enjoy family films as an adult? Seriously, how many kids in the auditorium actually know who Led Zeppelin is? Let me know!