Wednesday, 20 February 2019

The Kid Who Would Be King

It's been nearly eight years since Joe Cornish's terrific debut Attack The Block, a film that, in 2011, put him in the middle of the Venn diagram of British directors making excellent, modestly-budgeted sci-fi (cf. Duncan Jones, Gareth Edwards) and British directors making impressive first features (cf. Richard Ayoade, Paddy Considine). Cornish has hardly been dozing in that time, but it's interesting to note that if you were born when Attack The Block came out (unlikely, given my readership stats) then you're now more or less exactly the target age for his second film.

The Kid Who Would Be King concerns twelve-year-old Alex, the crushingly ordinary only child of a single-parent family from a suburban housing estate in London. When he stumbles across a sword wedged in a concrete pillar on a building site and successfully extracts it from its cementy sheath, Alex unexpectedly finds himself the sworn protector of the realm. Will he use the sword for good, overcoming apparently insurmountable odds to defeat evil and discover the true meaning of destiny, or will he turn to knife crime and carve a bloody swathe through the rest of Year 7, swinging the decapitated heads of his enemies in the air like claret-spurting bolas? Well, the BBFC have rated the film PG for "mild threat" so severed noggins are probably not the order of the day, sorry kids.
Opening with an inspired and, frankly, incredibly useful primer on the Arthurian legend in comic-book-style animated form, The Kid Who Would Be King warns us that the evil Morgana, once defeated by King Arthur, "will return when the land is lost and leaderless again." Establishing shots of a Britain weighed down by a grey drizzle of misery, homelessness, unspecified war and the unspoken but blindingly obvious shittitude of Brexit give off the kind of pessimistic world view that makes you want to give Cornish a hug and ask him if he's OK hun. More pertinently, though, the scene is set for the return of Morgana, played by Rebecca Ferguson with a sore throat and a severe case of split ends. The idea that Brexit and the failure of the current British political system have dredged up the most abhorrent evil known to the United Kingdom in millennia is floated, but Cornish - having made his point for the adults - dedicates the rest of his film to giving their offspring as much fun and entertainment as he can before they have to leave the cinema and grow up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland of embarrassing isolationism and delusional nationalism.

And there is a ton of fun and entertainment here: mouldering zombie warriors on flaming steeds rampage through the streets like Nazg├╗l who got too close to the barbecue; kids undergo swordfighting training with helpful, animate trees, and Merlin - in the form of Angus Imrie (son of Celia) - provides consistently eccentric running commentary, useful magical assistance and the kind of wacky hand-jiving spell-casting that kids will be practising in the playground for weeks after viewing.
As with Attack The Block, Cornish wears his influences on his sleeve. The unremarkable suburbia and broken families that characterised 1980s Steven Spielberg productions are all here, the mythology of Star Wars and Harry Potter are openly acknowledged and swooping shots of the rolling countryside of Cornwall and Somerset recall the grandeur of Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Squint and you might also make out the kind of children's fantasy absurdism that buoyed Time Bandits (terrifying supernatural forces appearing in kids' bedrooms are never not fun), or the social-malaise-manifests-as-demonic-threat plot of Ghostbusters II. Even Lance, the film's blond, arrogant, easy-to-hate bully, is modelled on Draco Malfoy, Game Of Thrones' Joffrey or - most despicably - an early Take That Gary Barlow.

But there's plenty of room for originality, and Cornish conjures a series of set-pieces that will delight school-age audiences - not least of which is the transformation of Alex's 'Dungate Academy' from Grange Hill-style dreariness to a knight school: a fortress of resistance against the forces of evil, laden with ingenious traps and armoured schoolkids.
The Kid Who Would Be King has a huge problem though, and that's the tiny slice of the cinemagoing market that are really going to dig it. The film skews very young: it's uncomplicated, hugely earnest, and mild of peril (despite the stakes, not a single character suffers so much as a scratch in the final battle). None of which are necessarily criticisms, but it's a kids' movie for kids who've yet to reach the age where cynicism and a general dismissal of everything sweet and lovely becomes the norm. At the other end of the scale it's potentially too scary for under-8s, with its hellmouths in the back garden and fiery monsters trying to murder innocent children. It's also two hours long, which is buttock-testing enough even for those of us not hopped up on Sunny D, or whatever legal crack the kids are fed these days.

In endowing his film with a big heart, a child's imagination and a wide-eyed innocence, Cornish may have drastically limited its audience, and that's a huge shame. But The Kid Who Would Be King does prove that the once and future Cornballs absolutely knows what he's doing at the helm of a movie, and there's no reason why he shouldn't be let near the kind of budgets that Duncan Jones and Gareth Edwards have been given. And if it takes another eight years for that to happen, I'll be here. Impatiently drumming my fingers and looking at my watch, sure, but I'll be here.

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