Review: The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)

A full eight years since the release of Attack the Block, Joe Cornish returns with his second feature film. A modernized tale of Arthurian legend, The Kid Who Would Be King is a fair but rudimentary family movie.

Though his two films target wildly different audiences, they share the common theme of youth facing off against evil forces without much outside help; one happens to feature aliens while the other has demonic knights. However, the kids here simply aren’t as compelling. Attack the Block was as much about troubled youth as it was an alien invasion, but this film is fine resting on the generic; poor parental relationships, the bullied, the bullies. The characters are largely conceptual – they go through obvious arcs and don’t perform much beyond their archetype.

Many of the plot beats feel equally forced, from the discovery of the sword to how the two bullies get tangled into the story. I couldn’t help but find those two characters out of place through most of the movie; they seem to be there just so the film can deliver a message. This is a story that wants to be about growing and learning to understand and care for others – but the characters succeed too easily.

The Kid Who Would Be King felt rushed during its first act, only to drag during its back half. Certain sequences from the beginning could have been milked for more; Alex too quickly falls into the hero role, and the film could have used more scenes with the young Merlin completely failing to hide among the student body. Simply establishing the characters more before sending them off on the quest could have done wonders.

And where it races through these promising concepts, it then slows during the rather mundane journey. So much of the film is just a group of kids travelling; by foot, by horseback, through knee-deep water. It carries the ambitions of an epic but fails to land the feeling of one; it could have really benefited from some tighter focus and a shorter length.

The film desperately wants to be whimsical, but the young actors simply aren’t able to deliver their lines to that effect. It’s easy to recognize the wit in the dialogue, but it’s rarely executed well. The one exception here is Angus Imrie, who goes completely ham while playing the out-of-touch young Merlin – he has enough energy to carry most of his scenes.

There’s something visceral about the creature design of Attack the Block; the aliens are these pitch-black masses, sometimes appearing as nothing more than floating teeth among shadows. The demonic knights here are cool enough, but not anything special. The visual design in general feels rather lackluster; though there are plenty of moments in the British countryside, it’s never shot in a particularly compelling way – the framing always feels rather utilitarian.

The Kid Who Would Be King simply doesn’t do enough. I get the sense that the creators wanted to pull back a bit, keep it simpler for a younger audience, but it goes too far. Attack the Block sold itself largely on style, but this film doesn’t capture anywhere near that charm. It doesn’t seem to be offering anything more than a simple quest.

2.5 Stars Out of 5

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