In a surreal shot of an English newsstand, the front pages of the tabloids trumpet gloom and doom. Literally. One paper’s headline is “Gloom,” another’s is “Doom.” A doomy-voiced narrator laments a “divided and leaderless land.” Is this the realm of Theresa May as Brexit nears its climax? No, it’s the homeland of a kid named Alex, who’s played by Louis Ashbourne Serkis, in “The Kid Who Would Be King.” Pursued by schoolyard bullies, Alex finds a sword stuck in a stone at a construction site, yanks it out and, by the time-warped grace of Excalibur, becomes a latter-day King Arthur. It’s a charming notion, worked out zestfully by the writer-director, Joe Cornish, until the charm falls victim to familiar CGI visions (hounds of hell on a rampage, a rising up of undead knights); excessive self-awareness and inspirational messages about courage in the face of bullying and achieving personal nobility through selflessness.
That said, there’s a lot to enjoy about the film, starting with the title’s sly reference to Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” and John Huston’s classic screen adaptation. Another reference can be seen fleetingly in a scene when Merlin shows up as a 16-year-old schoolboy in a Led Zeppelin T-shirt; he’s played, beguilingly, by Angus Imrie. The gawky apparition is holding a note of some sort with the word “Boorman” visible on the margin. That refers to John Boorman’s peerless “Excalibur,” with Nicol Williamson as a truly mesmerizing Merlin.
This version of Merlin also appears, from time to time, as an owl, and as a properly venerable and pleasingly seedy sorcerer played by Patrick Stewart. Rebecca Ferguson is the evil sorceress Morgana. She’s a formidable nemesis for a kid king to contend with, but Alex and his young supporters raise a citizen army with startling ease and the kid goes forth, both to smite the nation’s enemies and, in a trope straight out of Disney, to reconnect with his long-lost father.
The sword and the stone figure frequently in Alex’s quest. Actually it’s the sword and the stones, since this updated model of Excalibur can be parked in whatever stone is available, like an electric scooter that’s always at the ready. Even better, the sword can be retrieved, whenever it’s lost, with help from the unseen Lady of the Lake, who now needs only a modest body of water—at one point she thrusts Excalibur up from the depths of a bathtub in Alex’s suburban house. Details like these are delightful. So is the spectacle of Alex and his dauntless cohorts in tin armor they’ve bought in a souvenir shop. What’s destructive, and eventually benumbing, is the kitchen-sink clutter of fantasy, reality, wish-fulfillment and glib enchantment. To say that the film lacks simplicity would be an oversimplification.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.