The action adventure “The Kid Who Would Be King” seems to be following the pattern established 12 months ago by “Paddington 2,” by serving up an unassuming British family movie that’s more charming and smart than anyone expects.
Director-writer Joe Cornish, helming his first movie since the 2011 aliens-in-the-projects thriller “Attack the Block,” re-imagines the Arthurian legends for modern times. This, the movie points out, is a time when people are leaderless and pitted against each other — fill in your particular Brexit or Trumpian complaint here — and therefore exactly the right time for heroes like King Arthur.
The kid in question is Alex (played by Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of “Lord of the Rings” star Andy Serkis), a 12-year-old living in a council estate with his mum (Denise Gough). Alex regularly defends his best pal Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) from their school’s bullies, Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris). If these character names feel familiar, you’re very clever and stop reading ahead.
One night, the bullies chase Alex into a demolition site, where Alex finds a sword poking out of a concrete pillar. Alex realizes that the sword is Excalibur, and that he is the chosen heir to King Arthur’s mantle.
The re-emergence of Excalibur also awakens two ancient beings. One is Merlin, who we see as a gangly teen (played by Angus Imrie, son of British comedienne Celia Imrie) — though he transforms into an owl, or into his older form, who looks a lot like Sir Patrick Stewart. The other is Arthur’s long-imprisoned sorceress half-sister Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), who recognizes that the political turmoil above ground make the perfect conditions for her global conquest.
The ensuing adventure sets Alex, Bedders and Merlin — and, after some convincing, Lance and Kaye — on a quest to stop Morgana before she surfaces. Cornish also makes space for some serious stuff, like Alex learning the truth about his wayward father.
Cornish deftly mixes exciting action sequences, some scary CGI creatures, and a sense of humor that the kids will enjoy and is dry enough to amuse their parents whose knowledge of Arthurian legend begins and ends with “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Cornish is also blessed with a strong group of young actors who are earnest heroes without being cloying or ridiculous, making “The Kid Who Would Be King” a tale worth telling again.
‘The Kid Who Would Be King’
Opens Friday, January 25, in theaters everywhere. Rated PG for fantasy action violence, scary images, thematic elements including some bullying, and language. Running time: 118 minutes.