Defeated and banished to the underworld by her half-brother Arthur, Morgana pledges to return when Britain is divided and when the world’s leaders are weak. It’s impossible to see a movie start this way and not immediately think of how it fits into today’s global politics. Between Brexit and the rise of populist strongmen helming states across the globe, ‘The Kid Who Would Be King’ is perfectly timed to comment on the politics of the day. Pretty impressive for a movie aimed at kids.
In fact, Joe Cornish’s (Attack the Block) film is far from the first kid’s movie to surprise with its poignance on this subject. It follows in the footsteps of ‘Paddington 2,’ another children’s film to deliver a strong post-Brexit rebuke. Like ‘Paddington 2,’ ‘The Kid Who Would Be King’ subtly tackles the division and power dynamics that led to Britain’s EU exit as well as the global rise of authoritarianism.
This raises a few interesting questions. Why are children’s movies become a vehicle to explore our current political climate? And why are they finding more success in that exploration than more serious films with similar aims?
Perhaps the reason is inherently intertwined with why we tell these stories to children in the first place. We use characters like Paddington and King Arthur to teach out kids about kindness and tolerance. It’s those lessons that feel so vital today as this generation of leaders are running the world without regard for said lessons.
Turmoil is where we begin with ‘The Kid Who Will Be King.’ Britain, and the world at large, is faced with division and weak leadership. Brexit is never referred to by name, but rather implied by the backdrop of BBC News broadcasts that contextualize the setting. At Alex’s (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) school things are much the same. His best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) is being bullied by the older students who hold the power in their school.
Alex, being the kind of kid raised on stories of King Arthur, steps in save the day. He wants to do the right thing; he wants to be a good person. But Alex, like so many of us today, feels disaffected and worries that being the good guy is a losing proposition.
He’s right. Attempting to help only gets Alex chased by the bullies. It’s in his attempted escape from his tormentors Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rihanna Dorris) that he stumbles upon a sword in a stone that sets him on his adventure.
It’s a journey that is occasionally fun, often goofy and, sadly, bereft of depth. Cornish spent so much of his film crafting an elaborate plot enveloped in magic that required a fair bit of rule setting that it never had time to develop characters. Unfortunately, this left little room for much else. Alex and his friends are underwritten. Their characters aren’t dynamic enough to earn the emotion placed on their relationships.
‘The Kid Who Would Be King’ thusly drags when it asks viewers to connect and empathize with its protagonists. The kids play their roles aptly enough, but there isn’t enough there for them to truly make their characters feel like something more than a cog in the narrative.
What the film does sell are its core beliefs. ‘The Kid Who Would Be King’ works best when exploring its inherent belief that legends and fairy tales matter. They matter because if we can teach the kids of today to do what’s right, they can overcome the mess we’ve created tomorrow. It defends the idea that your potential and humanity should never be linked to your lineage or wealth, a concept that has been woefully forgotten by those in power today.
These themes come to fore as the plot hits its emotional climax. A long journey calls into question Alex’s worthiness as a hero. In forcing Alex to reconcile his worth, Cornish dares to say that our potential is bound not to who we are, but to who we choose to be.
In its villains, the film muses on the predatory nature of power. Morgana looks to exploit the perceived insufficiencies of Alex and his friends. She tries to tear them apart by dividing them. As Merlin himself explains, it’s how the powerful stay in power. Just as Morgana looks pit our heroes against one another, populist leaders have risen to power by turning us against our neighbors.
Mongering fear and resentment is how they remain in control. It’s what leads to an ‘us versus them’ mentality. As we’ve seen around the world, it breeds isolationism and xenophobia. This is the opposite of what King Arthur was supposed to represent. ‘The Kid Who Would Be King’ is quick to remind us that his knights, who in this film are a diverse bunch, sit at a round table where everyone is equal.
In today’s context, this is a bold statement to make, but it never feels out of place in the film. That’s because children’s stories have always been a place for projecting the best of society. Just as was the case when King Arthur’s legend was first published, his story is one we hope will teach our children the value of honor and teamwork. For all its faults as a film, ‘The Kid Who Would Be King’ understands how we got into this mess and posits a way out.
Perhaps its high time the adults start to listen. 6/10