You could say that every era has movies that fit perfectly there and nowhere else. “The French Connection” is a brilliant movie, but would it work if it were released today? Not necessarily. It is emblematic of 1970s filmmaking.
Some of that comes from the actors involved. That movie is peak Gene Hackman. Some of it comes from the director. But much of it is simply the feeling you get when you watch it — an esoteric, hard-to-describe quality that just makes the movie feel right.
When I was a kid, there were a series of those movies, aimed directly at my age group, that just worked. The greatest of those, “E.T.”, was a little transcendent, but the others, like “The Goonies,” “Explorers,” were serviceable, solid and perfect for the time.
Not every movie for 12-year-olds released in 1984 was good, of course, but that special few have stuck in our imaginations. This week I saw a movie that may stand as “The Goonies” of this generation. “The Kid Who Would be King” is a terrible title, but that’s about the only criticism I could make of it.
The story begins with Alex, a short, somewhat nerdy London schoolboy whose struggles with bullies Lance and Kay are about to take a turn for the better. After an altercation with his tormentors, Alex finds refuge in a construction site near his home. There, quite without ceremony, our hero comes across a tall broadsword, sticking out of a block of concrete. He pulls it free without difficulty, and thereafter, everything changes.
A wobbly owl shows up and transforms into a gangly teen named “Merton,” and at night, fiery skeletons stalk the neighborhood. Alex must gather his allies, Merton and the lovable loser Bedders, and his enemies, Lance and Kay, together to forge a defense against the rising evil of Morgana, the original witch of Arthurian legend, trapped below the earth for the last 1,500 years.
Much of what works about this movie is a quality that might not work in a lesser film. “The Kid Who Would be King” is earnest and sincere, never feeling the need to be edgy, or necessarily “about” anything more than the simple moral lessons it espouses.
The kids are funny, but not annoying. They also seem real somehow — realer, anyway, than the wisecracking miniature 30-year-olds that populate most kids movies. Director Joe Cornish, who made his big splash with “Attack the Block,” is accustomed to working with kids, and you can tell. The actors seem comfortable and natural onscreen.
It was refreshing to watch a kids movie that seemed completely appropriate for once. So often either the humor is obnoxious, or the movie is too scary or intense in an effort to appeal to everyone. In this case, however, the humor, the tone, the complexity of the plot, all felt completely appropriate. And that said, I never felt bored and the film never feels dumbed down. It’s like a book being at the proper reading level for the kids reading it. “The Kid” felt that way.
Of course, not everything is perfect. Merlin is a little more annoying than I think the filmmakers probably intended, and there are moments when the special effects are a little wonky. You could tell Cornish wasn’t working with the world’s largest budget on this film, but does a good job with what he had.
All in all, “The Kid Who Would be King” is a huge success, especially considering that the trailer looked terrible. I worry that people will just assume this is a throwaway piece of junk and avoid it. Don’t.
This is a solid film with enough charm and heart to overcome a thousand demons. If only it can overcome the cynical moviegoing public. Grade: A-
“The Kid Who Would be King” is rated PG for fantasy violence.
• By Chris Jenness