Like a decent Excalibur, a good King Arthur movie needs an edge. Maybe it was all those years that it lay half-buried in stone, but this sword just doesn’t cut it.

Our fellowship approaches a landmark they’ve only just learned to pronounce: Tintagel.

Add The Kid Who Would Be King to the mountain of “Fantasy For Kids” films that have imagined their young-white-male protagonist as the most blandly uninspiring fellow imaginable. Take the situation from bad to worse by giving the role to a young actor whose name, we might guess, they pulled from a King Arthur Coloring Context drawing. That this fellow scored the lead role of Alexander, a middle-schooler who becomes the next King Arthur, makes me immediately suspicious that he’s related to Somebody Important who wants to bump their kid to the front of the Child Actor Line. (Checks the kid-actor’s lineage and… yep, that could well be the case.) I’ll come around to an apology to Louis Ashbourne Serkis later — I don’t want his talented father mad at me — but whether you point to the actor, the script, or the director… something’s failing to click here.

Nice try, but the Spielberg is not strong in this one.

It doesn’t help that he’s surrounded by a supporting cast of school kids who are all more charismatic than him — nor does it help that, in spite of that, none of them would have been strong enough to earn a place at table in Hogwarts or in Frodo’s fellowship. Points to Dean Chaumoo for giving Alexander’s predictably portly sidekick Bedders some measure of charm. Promote him to the lead role, and the film would be markedly improved. (I’ll give proper credit to the Magical Mentor who joins the team later.) But mostly this film serves to make me appreciate the vim and vigor of that Harry Potter freshman class even more.

Young brown sidekick awestruck at the kingly courage of unremarkable white protagonist.

Pit these bargain-basement British Goonies against the wicked witch Morgana, an impressively frightening fire-breathing chimera who seems to represent both the Spirit of Brexit and adolescent fears of sex (or something), and cast Rebecca Ferguson in a role, and you stand a chance of spicing things up. It’s not a bad bit of casting, and points to the costume designers and concept artists for making Morgana sufficiently creepy. (Her fondness for wearing long curtains of root-vegetables reminds me a bit of some monsters in my own fantasy novels.) But the film gives Ferguson nothing particularly interesting to say, in those moments when we see an actress instead of a CGI monster, except for generic threats and rants from the Box of Standard Fantasy Villain Dialogue.

That she leads an army of video-game skeleton zombies on skeleton horseback — minions that have far less personality than, well… Minions — just amplifies an ongoing sense of missed opportunities.

[Insert uninspired threats from droning minions here.]
Take my complaints with a heavy dose of salt: As I glance back through opening-weekend reviews, I’m surprised to find myself so out of step with other critics. The Playlist‘s Kevin Jagernauth thinks all of this is “terrifically sharp and entertaining.” And Leigh Monson (Birth Movies Death) hails it as “a loving testament to the power of legends to build a better future, with a surprisingly mature understanding of how that message has a place now more than ever.” Heck, one of my closest friends has been recommending it to me for months: “If there is any film that kids should be watching today, it’s this one. If there is any film that storytellers for young people should be studying, it’s this one.”

I wish I could have what they’re having. I’m sure my response will provoke some laments about how I’ve lost my ability to “be a kid” again (but I would point to my enthusiasm for excellence in entertainment for children in answer). But I’m hearing what The AV Club‘s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, who says:

Authentic Arthur legend is awesomely weird and loopy, idealized and mystical. But The Kid Who Would Be King mostly goes through the motions of a one-size-fits-all quest….

…Cornish, for better and worse, is trying to have it both ways, offering both a sanitized fantasy about a boy whisked into a world of knights and magic, and a commentary on the same.

Okay — I do agree with the critical consensus who have hailed young Angus Imrie, playing Young Merlin, as the film’s MVP. While the film positions him as the next Patrick Stewart, he strikes me as much more likely to be the next Hugh Laurie, Stephen Merchant, or even Richard E. Grant. With a bit of Davie Bowie Other-ness (and limbs so elongated that he’d be the taffy-stretch ideal for the role of Plastic-Man), Imrie effortlessly steals every moment he’s in — from his bare-assed entrance as a kinder, gentler Terminator to the percussive spell-casting in which his arms become a circus sideshow. Without Imrie, this film would, unlike its zombie minions, stay stuck in the muck of the… peat?

The highlight of the movie, Angus Imrie is stretched and arm-strong.

Anyway, I’m running out of the will to say more, partly because I”m burned out on franchises and franchise-wannabes that just pour money into a Wal-mart Cake Mold hoping to become the Next Big Thing. (There’s a massive loose end at the conclusion here, a character they keep promising us who never appears, and who you can half-expect to appear as an end-credits stinger saying, “I’m ready for Episode Two.”) I expected better from Joe Cornish, whose Attack the Block remains a recklessly vivid reminder of how a great cast, a script full of firecrackers, and a judicious use of special effects can be worth more than a dozen blockbusters. I’m so grateful for that film, which showed us how good young John Boyega could be (before Star Wars showed us how easily such talent can be squandered).

Yep, that’s Patrick Stewart cleaning house in a Led Zeppelin t-shirt. I didn’t say the movie was without memorable moments.

But so many friends of mine seemed really excited about this that I’m wondering what I missed. Okay — so it has some admirable cast diversity and some lines about hope in an age that lacks any meaningful leadership. It’s good to here a voice of common sense from England, feeble as it may be. But if you’re going to hold up what the film itself calls “the LEGO mini-figure boy” minus any of the LEGO-movie personality and try to convince me that this is the next King Arthur, I’m sorry, but I’m getting plenty of that from the current stream of dispiriting Democratic campaign ads. It’s a bad look to organize a Round Table of quirky cultural diversity around just another Bland White Hero and call it “a King Arthur for a Better World.” Instead of inspiring hope, it bumps it further out of reach.

All this Arthurian cleverness, all these pop culture references, and yet not a single Monty Python joke?

To the cast: Sorry, kids, if I’m sounding cranky and mean. It’s not really your fault. Maybe you just needed a better script so I could’ve appreciated your potential as Knights of the Drop-Leaf Table.