The Kid Who Would be King is just one of those films that doesn’t get made anymore. Childhood fantasy that is strange and dark and a little too kinky for young audiences to be entirely comfortable with. Like those 80s Jim Henson movies, and the worlds of fleshy, wet puppetry they inspired. Rebecca Ferguson’s Morgana begins the film bound underground by the roots of Britain’s trees that she writhes against in order to break free from a country that is weakening. By the end she has transformed into draconic form, her beaklike face disconcertingly leathery, like the puppets these things used to be.
Writer/Director Joe Cornish finds purpose in his reimagining of Arthurian legend by viewing it through the prism of Brexit. The film is quite honest in its intent, early on while running to school our young hero passes a newsagent whose papers are full of grim pronouncements regarding Europe. When Merlin arrives on the scene he warns that the villain’s power is growing due to the country’s increasing disunity. The vision of a contemporary Arthurian court is one that finds power in diversity and inclusion while consciously disowning the false narrative exceptionalism.
Alexander (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is a nerdy bullied kid who, hiding from bullies at night, discovers Arthur’s sword of legend in the rubble of a construction site. Now believing himself to be the once and future king of England, and beset by enemy forces he follows the steps of the legendary figure in order to defend the realm. He is joined in this quest by the wise mentor Merlin (Angus Imrie and Patrick Stewart share the role) who doesn’t quite understand the customs of the land and an assortment of knights — his best friend and, through unfortunate coincidence, their bullies.
By day, they try figure out how to defeat their foe. By night, they fend off attacks from the forces of evil. Even these things, skeleton knights with glowing eyes, flaming swords and decaying armour. One cannot help be reminded of the stop motion ones we saw in Jason and the Argonauts way back in the 60s. Perhaps these too also represent the decaying image of our country’s rancid past. A history of colonialism and empire, once thought of as beautiful, now brought back into the light for us to see the illness at its core.
A lot of the undercurrent of the film deals with reckoning. As our villain spies upon the journeying heroes she points out their flaws, how they can be taken advantage of, is she diagnosing the country at the same time? By turns, cowardly, venal, blinkered and cruel — sounds like us, only these kids are afforded a chance to see how they might get better. Maybe we’d be doing better if we started to follow a code of chivalry, the myth is that at one point we ever did.
Notably this film never has the characters rationalise the quest as a return to the way things were. Perhaps that is radical in its own sense, things being the way that they were is what led us to this point, only by devising a new future can we hope to materially alter what living means. In preparation for the final confrontation, Alexander takes the approach of empowering everyone in his society — only together have they the chance of weathering the storm. In reality over the past week some of our politicians have decided that what our country really needs is another divisive, failing, centrist party. Oh boy fuck do the pundits love it.
The other deep seated cultural thing that it properly engages with here is our society’s devotion to the masculine. There’s been twitter discourse happening again recently about Winston Churchill. This time it’s because Brexit is likely to destroy our country as thoroughly as the War did, and Churchill is our nation’s platonic ideal of the stern patrician needed to steer our country through such hard times. It’s bullshit of course, the man was a monster and happened to be in the right place.
Our hero mistrusts and resents his single mother (Denise Gough). He distrusts the solutions that she offers him, they’re not suited to a world that is unrelentingly hard and unkind. Much of his quest revolves around finding his father, the man who passed on the royal lineage. Someone more suited to being Britain’s protectorate. Similarly the villain lacks the lascivious prancing of a David Bowie/Tim Curry type — she is the angry feminist type, equally unpalatable to a young man. At the end she becomes a literal harpy.
None of this feels like it is explored enough. The film certainly has time, it feels long at two hours and doesn’t quite have the stamina to push through the climatic finale in the way that it should. It’s like enough, it’s funny enough, and pretty enough, and the action beats can be derivative but they’re on the whole pretty fun. It just never quite coheres in the way that it should.
It got me thinking of another recent young adult fantasy, J. A. Bayona’s adaptation of A Monster Calls. That film fell flat because it was wholly too serious, this one, possibly, could have done with a little more of the stuff. Actually forcing the characters to engage with the subtext that weighs so heavily on its mind. But almost without exception, whenever it does it deflects — into a gag, into a fight, anything to get away.
Maybe working at this budget made Cornish afraid to make a strong statement, maybe he was and his politics are just pretty milquetoast. Britain is the people who live here, well it’s a nice sentiment but you’ve gotta follow it up by putting in the work to see who our people are.
The Kid Who Would Be King is currently screening in UK cinemas.
Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox