Let’s say you’re a kid, growing up in England’s middle-class suburbs circa right now. You’re not popular — in fact, it’s safe to say that most of your fellow students would characterize you as a dork, a geek, possibly a dweeb … and that’s if they’re being polite. But you’re smart, and you’ll stand up to the schoolyard pricks if they pick on your best friend — he’s chubby and equally as unpopular as you — even if that means risking public humiliation and a potential beating. Then one night, after those same bullies chase you into a construction site, you stumble across a sword sticking out of a stone. You remember something like this in the King Arthur book your dad gave you. (It means a lot to you, because it’s one of the few things you have to remember him by after he left you and your mother.) And, just like the regent of yore, you pull that impressive-looking saber right out without breaking a sweat. Neat, you think. I have a sword!
Then a bizarre new kid shows up at your school the next day, proclaiming that you, and only you, can save humanity. Because that sword you grabbed is actually Excalibur, and the ancient sorceress Morgana needs it so she can destroy the world during a solar eclipse four days from now. Also, these evil dead warriors from battles past, the ones with the glowing eyes, keep coming out of the ground to try to kill you. So you and your mate and that oddball new guy and those two bullies — remember, Arthur converted his enemies to allies — form your own Knights of the Round Table, going on a far away quest to stop Morgana before she unleashes hell on Earth.
It sounds the sort of rip-roaring adventure that would serve as the basis for a series of young-adult novels and then, naturally, a film franchise. Writer-director Joe Cornish simply decided to cut out the pesky middleman of a bestselling source material, however, and go straight to the movies themselves. As with his debut movie — the superior sci-fi/horror-flick homage mixtape Attack the Block (2011) — the British filmmaker’s original take on your underage-hero’s-journey tale gussies things up with a lot of sword-and-sorcery superfandom, cineliteracy, cheekiness and charm. Watch Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy), our young, would-be King Arthur 2.0 take on CGI ghost knights that Cornish purposefully blesses with a stop-motion herky-jerkiness, and you can see exactly what he’s going for: Harry Potter meets Ray Harryhausen. It’s a human fingerprint on a genre that’s become a little too blockbuster-generic for it’s own good. It makes all the difference.
Mind you, The Kid Who Would Be King still adheres to a template familiar to anyone who’s dipped into the YA-fantasy section of their local bookstore: underdog protagonists, goofy sidekicks (see Dean Chaumoo’s Bedders, who keeps comparing Alex and himself to “Sam and Frodo, Han and Chewie, Shrek and Donkey”), a mentor-like figure, namechecked mythology and monsters, father issues and last-minute feats of against-the-odds bravery. You don’t need to have seen The Goonies to enjoy it; in fact, it feels like such a faithful replication of these kind of narratives that you’re surprised it’s not an adaptation of an existing intellectual property. (Or that the movie is not sponsored by Scholastic.)
It’s just that Cornish’s combo of reverence for an ’80s Spielberg sugar rush and irreverence regarding the self-seriousness that accompanies your Percy Jackson, Magnus Chase, et al. stories lights up the film like a sparkplug. So you get thrilling set pieces and a Merlin who presents himself as either a rubber-limbed, faux-voguing teen stringbean or a homeless-looking Patrick Stewart. (The actor who plays the young wizard, Angus Imrie, is a wonder of comic timing and one hell of a find.) You get Rebecca Ferguson’s Morgana, who hisses every line with a chorus of spectral voices singing back-up, and you get a Lady of the Lake who shows up as a disembodied arm in a bathtub. You get parent-related pathos that occasionally slows the proceedings down, especially when it’s sandwiched between two different climaxes, and a knock-down drag-out battle involving a middle school fortified by makeshift weaponry that will make your inner 12-year-old squeal.
And you get a lot of apocalyptic handwringing about the end times we live in and a multicultural band of heroes that eventually save the day — and by extension, Britain. In an age of Brexit and our own chaotic national moment, it’s a statement that speaks loudly enough on its own without saying a word. The Kid Who Would Be King understands how to sell a worldview and deliver a boys’-adventure story in one seamless package. But it also understands why these types of smells-like-tween-spirit movies have a hold in the collective consciousness without dumbing things down to mush. All this needed to do was pull the sword out of the stone and not screw things up in order to succeed. It accomplishes a lot more than that.