Doesn’t it feel a little unfair that we had to wait eight years for a new Joe Cornish movie? Thankfully, The Kid Who Would Be King was worth the wait. And while it’s not Attack the Block II (the movie I’ve actually been wanting from Cornish for the better part of a decade), Kid is a new and worthy chapter in the director’s kid-focused, big-screen career. The opening five minutes even equate to the best animated movie I’ve seen since Into the Spider-Verse, kicking the film off with a big, spectacular retelling of the King Arthur legend before settling into modern times.
Cornish is almost daring his contemporaries to keep up. Much like M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass or Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, Kid Who Would Be King lets its characters in on what’s happening. The major difference here is that the film allows us to participate and anticipate along with those characters, which, I admit, sounds lazier than it actually is given that the kids on screen carry around a book called “Knights of the Round Table” for the entire length of the movie. But it’s a trick that works and doesn’t come off as cheap or weird (at least not in a bad way). It would have been one thing for this to be simply “King Arthur set in a high school,” but we go a step further to incorporate the real-time effects of this narrative being played out alongside the kids at its center learning about the story and their new-found roles within it. If Rian Johnson had thought of this, he’d have just had Kylo Ren pop in a copy of The Empire Strikes Back and start taking notes. But Cornish makes the device count and gives the audience something to latch onto, which goes a long way once the film settles into a repetitive second act.
Taking place over the course of four days leading up to a solar eclipse, our four heroes Alex, Bedders, Lance and Kaye, learn their new roles (as the new king and his knights) while fending off legions of the undead by night. But the film never quite figures out what to do with these evil hordes and just kind of throws them at the kids whenever the sun goes down. So they walk around by day doing plot stuff, then at night have a quick and way too easy fight against a flaming skeleton army. Not until the big finale does any of this come close to something resembling a real payoff, and even then, it still feels unearned, with the rest of the movie carrying what should have been a reasonably scary threat. Can a story like this work without an antagonist? Maybe not, but the big bad guys are the dullest element, compounding the fact that once that big solar-eclipse showdown finally comes, yeah, they stop the big evil army, but they’ve already done that three times by that point.
Even all that aside, for a PG adventure story aimed at kids, it’s pretty great. Cornish has a clear knack for getting to the core of what this kind of movie can really be, eliminating all the stuffy obnoxious tropes that normally follow. It’s more Last Unicorn than Harry Potter, and I’m thankful for that.