Tired of all the political spiel teeming from the TV? Not thrilled at the prospect of squandering your entertainment dollars on more of the same at the local multiplex? My first two releases logged for 2019 were a pair of above-average kidpics, A Dog’s Way Home and The Kid Who Would Be King, the latter a contemporary, live-action retelling of the Sword in the Stone legend, opening this weekend. For those seeking political asylum at the cineplex, there’s nary a mention of the current administration in either.
The Kid Who Would Be King’s subtle brand of messaging is made clear from the credits. Turn to books; they know what to do. The captivating use of Ben Day dots that fashioned the Classics Illustrated opening boded well for fans of old school storytelling. Storm clouds loom over England; newspaper headlines scream gloom and doom. (This concession to the current mood of the country is mercifully brief.) Twelve-year-old Alex Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) has another topic currently up for national debate to contend with. When the new kid in town comes across a schoolyard fight, Alex takes it upon himself to bulldoze the bullies.
This forms an alliance — the permanency of which writer-director Joe Cornish (Attack The Block) will spend two hours putting to the test — between Bedders the bullied (Dean Chaumoo), his aggressors Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), and our reluctant, blade-plucking hero. (He stumbles across the Stone in an abandoned construction site that doubles as the entranceway to hell.) Only one pure of heart can kill the evil Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson). Together, these four Knights of the Round Dining Room Table must enter the underworld and defeat the medieval sorceress on her own turf, lest Britain knuckle under to eternal slavery.
Thinking that the plot-motivating eclipse is four years, not four days, in the offing, Young Merlin (Angus Imrie) emerges from Stonehenge — a magical conveyance system of his own design — a wee bit off course. Merlin lives backwards in time, growing younger as he ages. Imrie is a human windsock of a lad who brings an ineffable brand of bewitchery to the character.
Old Merlin is played by Sir Patrick Stewart, who one feared would act as Imrie’s permanent replacement. Old Merlin’s been done to death, and never better than by Nicol Williamson in John Boorman’s Excalibur. Imrie’s unexpected antics are a delight, particularly his quixotic, Curly Howard style of snap-and-clap conjuring. Trying desperately to assimilate, Merlin disguises himself as counter-help at a local fast food restaurant. Enjoy the irony in knowing that the kid at the fried chicken shack can, at any moment, magically transform into an owl.
If parental units have yet to be mentioned, it’s because they have no rightful place in our protagonist’s attempts to save the world from certain destruction. Alex’s dad is absent from the picture. His mom is kindly and all, but it was lies and betrayal by adults like them that put a perilous spin on the globe to begin with. Don’t expect a paean to negligent parenting along the lines of Home Alone. Rather, it packs a positive message, reassuring young minds that when role models let them down, it’s up to their generation to step in and get the job done.
Truth be told, I vamoosed 25 minutes into The Lord of the Rings, never made it all the way through a Harry Potter picture, and quit the Star Wars franchise after Episode 6. (Or was it Episode 3? Who cares?) Then there was that embarrassing screening of The Chronicles of Narnia where the stranger seated next to me shot an elbow to silence the snoring. Though a safe distance from the fantasy film Pantheon (Starman, Wings of Desire, One Touch of Venus etc.), there’s no kidding when I say this is everything one could ask for from a contemporary sword and sorcery adventure.
The production design is a feast for the eyes, with nothing more spellbinding than the simple field-of-stars shades that cover Alex’s bedroom windows. Nor do the visual effects wear out their welcome. There’s a spectacular “Fighting Trees” tribute to Oz and the Lady in the Lake bathtub materialization is a moment Boorman could only dream of. Then there’s our villainess, tethered like a runaway character balloon at a Christmas parade. It ends with the most special effect of all: a parent’s trust.