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‘The Kid Who Would be King’ totally rules

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The box office has grown increasingly stratified in recent years, with films fitting firmly into established pigeonholes with the expectation of appealing to this or that specific audience and making X number of dollars. Superhero movies and animated epics and action tentpoles and low-budget horror/thriller – that’s most of what we see at the theater these days.

So when a film like “The Kid Who Would Be King” comes around, it’s worth noting. This is a live-action, family-friendly movie, a movie for kids starring kids; we don’t see many of those anymore.

And here’s the thing: it’s good.

It is a charming, thoughtful throwback courtesy of writer/director Joe Cornish (in his first directorial since 2011’s excellent “Attack the Block”), capturing a 21st century version of what one might call the “Amblin vibe,” named after the Steven Spielberg production company that was responsible for many of the best family films. It’s well-made, with a story built around a retelling of Arthurian legend while ALSO being a wonderful tale of friendship … and it’s the most downright optimistic movie I’ve seen in a long time.

Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle”) is a 12-year-old boy living in London with his mother Mary (Denise Gough, “Colette”). He’s just a regular kid dealing with regular kid stuff; he goes to a boarding school where he and his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo in his debut) try and keep their heads down and avoid the attention of bullies Lance (Tom Taylor, TV’s “Doctor Foster”) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris, TV’s “Secret Life of Boys”).

One day, in an effort to escape his tormentors, Alex ducks into a construction site. There, he sees a sword stuck in a stone and pulls it out.

Surprise, surprise – it’s THAT sword in the stone. And it turns out that the sorry state of the world, the cynicism and sadness of it all, has paved the way for the evil Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”) to escape imprisonment and take over. All she needs is to get her hands on that sword.

Protection for Alex arrives in the form of Merlin (Angus Imrie, “Pond Life”), appearing as a teenager because Merlin ages backwards (though we do get to see the older version – played by none other than Patrick Stewart – a few times as well). But it isn’t enough – and with a solar eclipse coming in just a few days, Alex and his friends are going to have to come up with a plan quickly if they’re to have any hope of saving the day.

Alex will have to lead the way. He will have to become … a king.

“The Boy Who Would Be King” is reminiscent of the great kid-led adventure movies of the past while also wholly embracing the legend upon which the narrative is based. It’s as though Mikey and the rest of the Goonies were on a quest to save the world instead of just their neighborhood; swap out the pirate ship for a sword in a stone and you’re halfway there. It’s the tone of the thing that really makes it work – it’s all just so gosh-darned EARNEST. We’re so used to being cynical; it’s quite nice to watch a movie steeped in optimism.

Cornish finds ways to capture the emotional complexities and inherent anxieties of being of a certain age, stuck between being a child and becoming an adult – all without ever coming off as condescending. There’s a remarkable innocence to these characters and this story.

And sure, there are some spots where the effects work is less than impressive. But Cornish makes up for that by taking advantage of his locations, using sweeping shots to capture the grandeur of nature as his heroes make their way through it. He makes sheep meadows and marshes seem epic, allowing us to take the perspective of a child thrust into a role far bigger than he ever could have known.

The kids are actually quite good as far as child actors go. Serkis – the son of mo-cap maestro Andy Serkis – handles the screen with a skill that belies his age. He’s an engaging performer who takes care of business. Newcomer Chaumoo is adorable, projecting a wide-eyed guilelessness that is utterly charming. The gee-whiz character is vital to this kind of movie and he plays it well. Imrie is the right flavor of weird for teen Merlin; Taylor and Dorris are fine, though their respective journeys feel as though they’re missing a stop or two. Ferguson and Stewart are both pretty delightful, clearly relishing being involved in the telling of this kind of story. Both dig into their scenes with relish, albeit in very different ways.

The highest praise I can bestow upon “The Kid Who Would Be King” is to say that it reminds me of the movies I loved when I was a kid myself. It is goofy and sweet and unabashedly sentimental, treating children – both those in the film and those watching it – with respect.

Long live the king.

[4 out of 5]

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