Like recent superhero films, children’s movies have fallen into a safe and predictable pattern: Some great evil is rising and gaining strength, bringing the promise of Armageddon to the world, and the only thing standing in its way is the main character, the “Chosen One” who for whatever plot-contrived reason is the only person able to stand against the growing evil. But this is what makes “The Kid Who Would Be King” a wildcard. Instead of playing it safe within clichés of the genre, this movie actually tries to be a little bit more.
In a nutshell, “The Kid Who Would Be King” is director Joe Cornish’s take on the legend of King Arthur, specifically on Arthur’s return to save England in its darkest hour. In the movie, Arthur himself does not actually return; instead, the once and future king is 11-year-old Alexander Elliot (Louise Ashburn Serkis) who pulls the legendary sword Excalibur out from a slab of concrete in a construction site.
This marks him as the adversary of Morgan le Fey, the enchantress and sworn enemy of Arthur (she also happens to be his half-sister) who then proceeds to send her undead warriors to kill Alex and take Excalibur. Leaning on his friend Beddoes, school-bullies-turned-allies Kay and Lance, and the wizard Merlin (Angus Imrie and Patrick Stewart), Alex must find a way to stop le Fay before her undead army can enslave Britain.
This synopsis makes the film sound as if it falls completely within the parameters of current trends in children’s movies and, to be honest, in its beats, the movie does follow most of the tropes. We have the familiar themes of friendship and courage; we have a hero who doubts himself then rises to the occasion; we have enemies turned to reluctant allies only to become actual friends. But within these clichés there are ideas that take “The Kid Who Would Be King” to a level above most other children’s movies today.
Tucker Carlson recently came under fire for suggesting the free market system was partially to blame for many of the moral problems that plague the postmodern United States. While he may be wrong overall, no one can deny Americans face a series of moral dilemmas, including the collapse of the nuclear family, the opioid crisis, and the rising suicide rate.
Part of the reason for that may well be the materialism of the postmodern West, which empties everything of meaning, and says anything that can’t be measured, quantified, and given a price either doesn’t exist or is useless. This is the world hinted at the beginning of the “The Kid Who Would Be King.” Newspapers and pundits in the opening scenes establish that the world is full of war, greed, and weakness. Kay and Lance cite this as the reason they’re bullies. “The world is cruel and selfish, so why shouldn’t we?” Kay tells Alex and Beddoes.
What this world—and our world—has lost is what Russell Kirk called the moral imagination, which, in Kirk’s words, is the “enduring source of inspiration that elevates us to first principles as it guides us upwards towards virtue and wisdom and redemption.” In other words, it is what allows us to see how the world should be; not according to some ideological scheme but according to the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, the three transcendentals Dr. Peter Kreeft has said are the things everyone seeks, consciously or not, and which we can never have too much. And the moral imagination has been lost, in large part, because we’ve lost a sense of mythology.
Mythology is a word that confuses us because we’ve made it a synonym for make-believe or lies. But mythology is deeper than that. Author J.R.R. Tolkien argued in a 1936 lecture titled “On Fairy Stories” that the things in fairytales were, in a sense, more real than the things we can actually see and touch, because in myths and fairy tales, evil is evil and good is good with no pretense and no mask. That is why, Tolkien explained, an ogre’s castle always has to be evil looking, because it is always evil, while an inn is always homey because it is always good.
In this way, mythology can be an expression of truth— just truth written poetically. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” is not factually true. Other men, like Dr. Samuel Prescott, rode with Revere, and completed his ride when Revere was caught by the British. But the poem still touches on universal themes like patriotism, sacrifice, and vigilance. Mythology, in other words, makes the invisible visible.
“The Kid Who Would Be King” depicts what is probably an accurate portrayal of postmodern Britain, where mythology has been forgotten. There are the usual, obligatory scenes of Alex’s mother and schoolmates scoffing at his story. As is typical in movies like this, he fights against the facts himself, not wanting to believe he is the king, and that it is his responsibility to defeat le Fay.
But this film pushes deeper. In one of their confrontations, le Fay gives Merlin the ordinary spiel—contending their side is doomed and she is destined to triumph. But one of the reasons she gives for gloating is interesting. The children of England, le Fay says, are too wrapped up in their comforts and their toys to stand against her.
A comparison to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where people are controlled though drugs and sex comes to mind. Because people are wrapped up in distractions or work—in things that don’t reflect the True, Good, or Beautiful—they are easy prey for le Fay.
This leads to two other, interconnected ideas in the film. The first one is that we can’t just sit on our mythology, as it were. We have to become our mythology to do good in the world. When Beddoes and Alex go to find Merlin, Beddoes tells Alex he’s never been out of school on a weekday “without adult supervision” and that he’s much more comfortable reading about adventures and watching them than going on them.
That is our default position. It’s much easier to read about something and dream about it than to actually do that thing. In practice, applying the truths of mythology—whether it’s the honesty of George Washington or the courage of Frodo Baggins or the altruism of Robin Hood—means work and discomfort and very real potential failure. It’s best to just keep dreaming and not put yourself on the line like that, we tell ourselves. Except that path means everything will stay the same.
The film also emphasizes that you can’t just change the world, protect your home, or defeat evil by pummeling it into the ground. That’s the idea the four kids have until Merlin asks Lance if he knows about the chivalrous code. When Lance and the rest display their ignorance of it, Merlin instructs them in its four tenets:
- Honor those you love
- Give no wanton offense
- Tell the truth at all times
The wizard makes it very plain that if any of them break the code, le Fay will not be defeated. Rather than the “fight fire with fire” mentality, the film argues that the bad things in the world can only be really defeated by their opposites—by virtues, not just by vices stronger people wield against us. Goodness does not imply weakness but real strength, much like how C.S. Lewis described chivalry, explaining it meant that a man was bloodthirsty enough to fight for what was right, and meek enough to be a gentle and humble person in the company of others.
Although it seems doomed for box office failure (the film has only made approximately $10 million against a budget of $60 million), “The Kid Who Would Be King” stands out as a children’s movie that does not just rehash the same old lessons of friendship, courage, and standing up to others like most films in the genre. It decided to take a chance and to tackle deeper themes while still delivering a fun adventure— and all without any rude humor. That alone is quite an accomplishment.