The movie’s 21st-century Arthur is a plucky 12-year-old named Alex (played by Louis Ashbourne Serkis, the son of Andy Serkis). Picked on at school for looking like a “Lego mini-figure boy” and living with his stressed-out single mother (Denise Gough), Alex relates to many larger-than-life figures of contemporary pop culture—orphaned dreamers like Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker who are fated to perform great deeds. Alex’s dad, who disappeared when Alex was a small child, left behind a book of Arthurian legends. So when the boy chances upon a sword in a concrete block at a housing development and pulls it out with ease, it’s easy to imagine where his mind goes.
Accompanied by his only friend, Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), an adorably squeaky sidekick who encourages all of these heroic fantasies, Alex realizes it’s up to him to save the day and knit Britain back together. This involves doing battle with fantastic creatures emerging from a dark nether-verse and eventually winning the trust of his perpetual bullies, Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris). If those names seem familiar, they’re supposed to, as is that of the gawky new student Mertin (Angus Imrie), who arrives at Alex’s school out of nowhere and offers to teach the boy how to be a proper king. Cornish makes all of the mythical parallels straightforward in case viewers don’t know of Lancelot, Kay, and Bedivere, cutting to gorgeously animated footage of classic Arthurian tales and lending the movie some sweeping Lord of the Rings–esque scale.
These kids are the knights of Alex’s modern round table (a coffee table with collapsible sides), and Mertin (who admits his name is really Merlin) begins to educate them on the forgotten enchantment of their country, whisking them to Stonehenge and the remote English coasts of Tintagel, and teaching them the basics of magic. Imrie is the film’s biggest discovery: The 24-year-old actor, who’s known for his stage and radio work, inhabits his iconic mentor role with unique flair. This Merlin performs magic by clicking his fingers wildly and replenishes his powers by stuffing himself with chicken nuggets. Sometimes, he’ll sneeze and turn into either an owl or his older self (played by a garrulous Patrick Stewart).
The film hums with energy anytime Merlin is on-screen, but even when it’s in the hands of its very sweet preteen ensemble, it’s a lively watch. Cornish showed off his particular skill for ensembles composed of young, unproven actors with Attack the Block; on top of that, The Kid Who Would Be King adds some large-scale action featuring fantasy monsters. There’s a fair amount of peril for Alex and company to deal with, and Cornish communicates it all cleanly and simply, never overwhelming the frame with CGI chaos.
The action is only half the point, however. The true journey for Alex is one of self-discovery, away from the fatherless heroes of the movies he loves; the mystery of his parentage, which is teased in the first half of the film, isn’t as crucial as it initially seems. Cornish is trying to push back against the familiar beats of those stories, while borrowing from an even more primal part of the Arthurian narrative—the strength of community and the power one draws from bridging gaps. Just as King Arthur united his rivals, Alex finally gets his classmates on his side, and for the film’s final set piece, they all work together to defend their school against fiery beasts on horseback. A sword in a stone may not be the solution for our real divided world, but for two hours in the theater, it makes for a pretty entertaining fantasy.