The movie, with its misfit ensemble of kids, is an ‘80s throwback and a fitfully clever update on the King Arthur story. Boy hero Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is the son of a single mom and a mysteriously absent father, who left behind a book about the Arthurian legends. As we learn in the opening montage of headlines and TV reports, the world is going to hell, full of political dissension and economic unrest.
Alex, looking squished into his English necktie and ill-fitting schoolboy uniform, is not in the stereotypical heroic mold, though he has a keen sense of chivalry. He steps in one morning when he sees his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) being roughed up by the school bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris).
After school, the two friends get cornered in a fenced construction site. There, stuck in a concrete block, Alex finds a sword. It is the famed Excalibur, of course, and when Alex extracts it, he concludes he must be the rightful heir to the throne of England.
Great… but no so great. The unsheathing of Excalibur awakens Arthur's evil half-sister, Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson, from Mission: Impossible — Fallout) who has tree-root extensions and an army of skeleton knights with glowing eyes at her command. Following some clues, Alex decides that he and Bedders, along with the two bullies-turned-allies, must head by bus to Tingatel Island in Cornwall, the legendary of home of King Arthur.
Cornish’s pace here is somewhat casual, and the beats of this hero story awfully familiar, a problem that isn't diminished by the script underscoring the point. (“We’re Han and Chewy, Frodo and Samwise!” crows Bedders.) Fortunately, there are also a few ameliorating dashes of flip irreverence, including the moment when Alex, sitting with his group around a rectangular kitchen table, declares "You’re my knights, and this is the round table!" When they look confused, he quickly adds: "Quick Bedder! Lift up the flaps."
While the adolescent cast is unexceptional, there is one performance that ratchets up the entire movie. That's the character of "Merlin," the Arthurian wizard, here inhabiting the body of a gangly teen played by Angus Imrie (actually 24), the son of the great British character actress, Celia Imrie.
Imrie does a funny, fussy turn, recalling some of the fumbling imperiousness of a young Hugh Laurie in his Jeeves and Wooster period. This Merlin can shapeshift with a sneeze, cast spells with finger snaps, and turn into an owl or even Patrick Stewart (as the older Merlin). Merlin is least successful at impersonating a "normal" schoolboy named Mertin, who Alex laments is "the only kid more bullyable than us."
The Kid Who Would Be King might have benefited from more flippancy and fewer repetitive CGI battles that drag its running time to over two hours. Though it shows a general sensitivity with a racially diverse cast, the movie might have done better than focusing on a vengeful female villain. Surely, the King Arthur legend is enough of a boys’ club story already.
The Kid Who Would Be King. Directed and written by Joe Cornish. Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Dean Chaumoo, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, Angus Imrie, Rebecca Ferguson and Patrick Stewart. Opens wide January 25.