Director Joe Cornish‘s movie about modern British kids who take up the literal mantle of King Arthur and his knights is a perfect melding of his style with kid-friendly fare. It also includes some oblique and unexpected social commentary in what is otherwise your basic misfit kids on an adventure movie that could’ve come straight out of the 80’s.
This is otherwise nothing like Cornish’s cult favorite Attack the Block (which was the last –and only– time we saw him direct), except for its perfect sense of place. Both films capture their thoroughly British settings but also manage to translate them to a universal understanding. This is much the same way The Goonies, E.T. or Stranger Things captured their settings of the Pacific Northwest, suburban California, exurban Indiana, respectively, and draws you in. The script is also fun, which should be no surprise to those who know Cornish from his comedy roots or as one of the co-writers of Ant-Man.
Our main story follows young Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), the son of a single mom and a frequent target of school bullies Lance and Kaye along with his best friend Bedders. One night after school they chase him into a construction site where Alex finds a swords sticking out of a pillar of concrete and rebar. He pulls it out, fights off his bullies, and escapes.
The next morning a strange new kid at school calling himself Merlin… no… Marvin, tells Alex he is the heir to Excalibur and must protect England from a growing threat. When Arthur and his knights defeated Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), they only sealed her away until a time when the hearts of mankind would grow cold, the people would be divided against each other, and cynicism would reign. Alex only has a few days before a solar eclipse which will unleash her and her armies, and he must gather his new knights to defeat her.
Alex in inspired by all of this. As the child of a single mom, all he had to remember his father by was a book of Arthurian legend, which told him Arthur turned his enemies into allies and united all the land. So, of course, he turns his bullies into his friends, and they take off cross-country to get to the island where Arthur was supposedly born (and where Alex’s father supposedly lives).
The film is a lot of fun, with kids fighting evil monsters and swashbuckling swordplay. There’s also this underlying story of Alex’s search for his own identity and trying to grow up not knowing his father. Without revealing too many spoilers, let’s just say that not everything is as it seems, both in the Arthur legend and Alex’s putative background. At a particularly disheartening moment when he wants to give up, Merlin appears (this time as his older, wizened self played expertly by Patrick Stewart) to tell him that we each write our own stories. And sometime we need to take our old legends and tell them anew with a new, better take on them. That serves as a beautiful explanation of exactly what this film is.
First, the not-so-subtle references to the divisions and cynicism of the adult world giving rise to Morgana’s return are pretty oblique, but it would be fairly easy to read “BREXIT” into the film, even if it isn’t shown in the film’s depictions of newspapers and tv news, which mostly focus on broader issues like “CRIME!” and “HATE!” But really? We’re talking about Brexit here, and we’re talking about anti-immigrant sentiment.
Which is another reason the casting of the film is so great. Alex is a white kid (specifically worth noting Louis Ashbourne Serkis is the son of Andy Serkis and Lorraine Ashbourne), and his main bully Lance (a stand-in for Lancelot) is blond and blue-eyed. But Bedders is of Indian/Pakistani origin and Kaye is black (and a girl!). It’s refreshing to see this story being re-written with a specific call for unity but also being representative of a more cosmopolitan, egalitarian Britain and where their ethnic and gender identities never come up once. They are simply people to one another.
The film bogs down a little bit in the middle in their travels across country, but ends incredibly strong with a final showdown between the forces of evil and Alex leading his entire school against them. This is the movie my 10 year old self would’ve loved and which I hope kids today will pick up on as a new modern classic.
3.75 out of 5 stars