“I am trying to be heroic, in an age of modernity / I am trying to be heroic / As all around me, history sinks.” —Bloc Party, “Song for Clay (Disappear Here)”
In October 2018, an 8-year-old Swedish girl named Saga Vanecek attained wide notice for finding a rusty sword at the bottom of a lake. This was a 1,500-year-old sword, pulled from its resting place by a child named “Saga,” so naturally she would go on to unite all the peoples of the world under one banner and lead us into a great and lasting era of peace. Saga Vanecek, our once and future queen. Except she’d already given the sword to her dad, who then called the relevant experts. The sword was being examined and prepped for exhibit, because that’s the sensible and normal thing to do with artifacts.
The Kid Who Would Be King, English director Joe Cornish’s first film since his 2011 cult hit Attack the Block, imagines what would happen if the sensible and normal thing didn’t happen. What if, when presented with a sword and called to take up arms in the eternal battle between good and evil by forces you don’t quite understand, you didn’t tell your parents right away?
Like Attack—wherein a group of council estate misfits fight off a strangely localized alien invasion—The Kid fits the supernatural into the margins of daily English life. In both movies, when they’re most needed, the adults are decidedly unhelpful.
Alex Elliott (Louis Ashborn Serkis, son of Andy “Gollum Ulysses Klaue” Serkis) is an average student of modest size at the dreary and excellent Dungate Academy. He gets picked on by both the school bullies and faculty: Dungate is the kind of place where the faraway future, which is entirely dependent on test scores, is cast on the wall to frighten children into compliance. In other words, it’s school. “What you do here directly affects the rest of your life,” says Alex’s principal early on in the movie. And the rest of his life does look sort of boring and bleak, until he stumbles upon a broadsword at a construction site.
Cornish keeps the context of the ensuing tale even smaller than in his directorial debut. Attack the Block can be read as a caricaturization of the England Riots of 2011—misunderstood youth surviving with the means at their disposal, expressing anger and disappointment with official neglect in the ways they know how. The Kid, which is largely a retelling of the age-old tale of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, doesn’t necessarily have any larger issue in mind. Boy finds sword, boy makes allies out of his enemies, boy fights off an incursion of undead knights led by an ancient evil. In a recent Los Angeles Times interview, Cornish didn’t take issue with people projecting a Brexit allegory onto the The Kid’s central theme of unity, but noted that it wasn’t his intention. “It is a kids’ movie,” he said. “It’s not overtly political, it’s not Vice, and it’s not a Michael Moore movie.”
Everything, on some level, is a product of the time in which it’s made. In that same interview, Cornish said he came up with the idea for the film in the time of Thatcherism, a similarly fraught sociopolitical moment. But The Kid is only as political as sticking up for the little guy is radical. The grandest gesture the film makes to the crumbling world outside is when Alex passes a newstand on the way to school one morning with headlines proclaiming “GLOOM! WAR! FEAR! CRISIS!”
If you enjoyed Attack the Block, you’ll probably enjoy The Kid Who Would Be King. However, it is aimed directly at kids, without many knowing winks to older audiences. That means it’s nowhere near as deranged, hilarious, or irreverent as its predecessor. After all, it’s rated PG. Plus there’s no Pest. No Probs or Mayhem, either.
The Kid’s intent is not to shock but charm, and to remind viewers of a bygone era of live-action kids movies that were actually kids movies and not just kid-friendly. It’s not animated, and it’s not a Marvel movie. It’s a by-the-numbers fantasy adventure—magic, underdog protagonists, familial dysfunction, kooky sidekicks, and only a healthy amount of CGI. The only thing missing is a love interest. It’s tidy and predictable, but exciting: A large set piece near the end finds a school full of children carrying street signs as shields and using exercise ropes as siege defenses against the forces of darkness. Serkis doesn’t give the earth-shattering lead performance that John Boyega did as Moses in Attack the Block, but then again, who could?
Like Into the Spider-Verse just a few weeks ago, The Kid sells you on the idea that everyone could be the hero of their own story. If Miles Morales can be Spider-Man, Moses the savior of the human race, and Arthur the great uniter of Britain, then why couldn’t you pull the amazing out of the mundane? I guess this has all been a long way of saying: The next time you find a sword, before turning it in, see where it takes you first.