Wednesday, June 26, 2019

IN-FLIGHT MOVIES: The Kid Who Would Be King

I've been home for a bit now, but trip recovery always takes a bit of time. I have more than enough material to blog about in the coming weeks, movies and anime and games included (in particular I'm outlining a three-part take on Detroit: Become Human with my Kalibourne collaborator Rob Lantz), but a lot of those are going to take some time to make cohesive... not easy when I'm also tailing multiple deadlines.

In the meantime, I did watch plenty on my flights to and from the UK, and I've always enjoyed doing something of a recap of the movies I finally have a chance to catch up to. One I was happy to find, since it was out of theaters basically as soon as I'd decided I'd give it a go, was The Kid Who Would Be King. For someone who hasn't yet seen Attack the Block (yes, I know, the line for confronting me with shocked disbelief starts to the left of the door), "giving it a go" amounted to wading in blindly. All I knew was it was Arthurian, Patrick Stewart was in it, and it was kid-centric — the last of which can really go one way or the other.

The fact that our hero's name is Alexander Eliot was actually an immediate reassurance: if nothing else, the naming conventions would be spot-on. Alex is your average British schoolkid with a slightly more-than-average interest in the legends of King Arthur, thanks to a book left to him by his now-absent father. He and his bestie Bedders endure bullying from school big-shots Lance and Kay, with Alex's chivalric code doing... well, about as much as one would expect under the circumstances.

After an especially vigorous round of bullying where it seems the pair think they may have actually killed Alex, he finds a sword in a stone. It comes out easily and he takes it home... and that's when the trouble starts.

Our old friend Morgana (who even on her best days is going to have a wildly varying canon) is ensnared deep underground, awaiting the ultimate hat trick: a world in turmoil, the return of Excalibur, and a solar eclipse. We sort of have the first, no question. The second is now with Alex, and the third is coming pretty soon.

Merlin is next on the scene, played by Angus Imrie (recently of The Spanish Princess) as a mix of Bertie Wooster, the Eleventh Doctor, and the writer of this Amazon review. He's here to prep Alex and his knights (which he'll have, hang on) for their battle with Morgana and her Mortes Milles. Provided they can put the centuries-old magician in her place before the eclipse, all will be right with the world.

From there, we get our A and B stories that walk along hand in hand. At the front is the immediate challenge, of course: Alex has to build an army (albeit a small one) and train up to put an end to Morgana's plans. And if you haven't guessed from their names, Lance and Kay will be involved... as will all the trouble that threatens to bring.

But Morgana isn't just sending undead soldiers after the kids. She has roots everywhere (quite literally), and knows their children's weaknesses. Even Alex. Hell, especially Alex. Excalibur will only strike true provided the Code of Chivalry (outlined by Merlin) is observed from the moment it's drawn, and fortunately for Morgana there are plenty of unexpected places for our heroes to trip up.

I don't want to go into too much detail beyond that because, frankly, the way they handle everyone's personal stories is both overall good and just plain a relief. The introduction of bullies as allies into a narrative is always a tricky one. I grew up bullied and got every version of the narrative on why it fell to me to be the bigger person, including Very Special Episodes revealing the great hidden truth that bullies tend to be unhappy people themselves. While that's often true, it's rarely true that a bullied person just understanding this will turn the heart of the bully and stop the violence.

There is absolutely character growth for Lance and Kay, and it's gratifying that it doesn't fall to Alex and Bedders to shoulder that burden themselves. Actions have consequences, and in this modernized Arthurian world, "actions" include feelings and internal motivations, too.

Alex isn't exempt from some Big Pills, either. If anything, he has to swallow some of the biggest ones. He's our gateway into an unexpected discussion on legends — not just the heroic kind, but the kinds we spin for ourselves and hold ourselves to. What do we do when the facts that motivate us turn out not to be true? Going further into that would spoil some really heartfelt reveals, but suffice to say there are lots of ways to save the world.

I apparently hate fun because I have a very low tolerance for goofy slapstick comedy, but The Kid Who Would Be King stayed within my comfort zone. There was some silliness mixed in with very real life-or-death scenarios, but nothing that really muddled the tone of the film. It was also nice to see Bedders, the self-professed Samwise of the group, as a full and valid member of the team rather than a go-to for physical gags. (Which isn't to say there weren't any.)

Patrick Stewart's time as Merlin is relatively limited, but he makes the most of it. The role is most definitely Imrie's, with Stewart's older version coming in as a stand-by for when a scene needs extra drama or gravitas (an admission Merlin freely makes himself because kids don't listen). His final lines, too, are some rare welcome positivity in the midst of trying times — a challenge to the idea that awareness of the state of the world can only be expressed via cynicism and existential dread, and anything less than pessimism amounts to foolishness or naivety. 

The Kid Who Would Be King lands safely where other Arthurian movies might fumble because it doesn't attempt to be a retelling. It's a loose interpretation and presents itself as such, even within the narrative. It's the whole point of the movie: you don't have to be The Next Arthur to be capable of great things. Hell, that's a lot to expect of yourself. Respect, hope, kindness, motivation, and honesty can pave the way, and choosing to be a light in dark times accomplishes more than collapsing under the thumb of sadness.

Hopefully the time will come when we won't need a kid with a magic sword or a crazy owl magician to slap that mentality into us.

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