There’s nothing the world needs less than another King Arthur movie (unless it’s another Robin Hood movie), and that’s why Joe Cornish didn’t make one. Instead, the man behind minor cult hit Attack the Block (whence came John Boyega) made The Kid Who Would Be King, set in the present day, about a 12-year-old boy who discovers he’s Arthur’s heir after pulling a sword out of a chunk of concrete at a demolition site. It’s not a retread of a familiar legend — it’s a witty, kid-friendly adventure that uses the Arthurian legend as the background for an original (well, “original”) story about young heroes.
The lad is Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), an ordinary Londoner living in a world that desperately needs saving, indicated by the blunt newspaper headlines: “GLOOM”; “MISERY”; “WAR.” After Alex and his best friend, a dorky amateur magician named Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), discover the sword and its mysterious properties, they are visited by a young Merlin (Angus Imrie), who dumbly tries to pass himself off as a schoolboy named “Mertin” (“Greetings, young academicians!” he says to the class) before showing Alex and Bedders the ropes and telling them their mission: to stop the snakelike Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) from escaping from the underworld during the upcoming solar eclipse. The boys team up with a pair of bullies, Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), to follow Merlin’s instructions about proper knightly behavior, learn lessons about bravery and friendship, and so forth.
The film’s delights are in its details. Young Merlin, panicky and perturbed, can only perform magic by doing elaborate hand gestures, like a coked-out baseball coach. (Patrick Stewart appears in a few scenes as the elderly Merlin. This is wholly unnecessary, but hey, Patrick Stewart.) There are ghostly skeletons on horseback chasing our heroes, but their fragility makes them relatively easy — and fun! — to vanquish. Merlin’s wizard powers can only be replenished by beetle blood, ground bone, and beaver urine — all of which, fortuitously, can be found in the products of a local fried chicken restaurant. Cornish’s playful sensibilities and strong sense of momentum keep the energy up, resulting in a new fantasy adventure for families to watch over and over again.