The British comedian turned writer-director Joe Cornish is what you might call a doomsday optimist: The end is always nigh in his movies, but you still get the sense that the future remains in good hands.
His debut feature, the scary and irrepressible “Attack the Block” (2011), was a science-fiction horror-comedy about a bunch of South London teenagers doing battle with aliens from outer space. It was good, grisly fun, but also entirely sincere in its belief that the fate of the world rests on the next generation’s shoulders.
That conviction shows no sign of flagging in the solidly diverting “The Kid Who Would Be King,” a clever contemporary riff on Arthurian lore that remains true to Cornish’s comically askew vision, even if it starts off looking conventional to the core. Maybe it is, in some all-too-forgivable respects: It follows an adolescent Londoner who pulls a sword from a stone, runs afoul of some dark magic and ultimately absorbs valuable lessons about the power of love and friendship. But if the movie’s moralizing is a bit on-the-nose, it never feels medicinal; your sniffles are honestly earned, your laughs even more so.
The world as we see it could certainly use more laughter. The movie drops us into a modern-day Britain riven by internal chaos and division, and absent anyone resembling a true leader. The word “Brexit” is never spoken, probably because it would have been redundant. All this turmoil, we’re told, threatens to unleash even darker forces below, namely the evil enchantress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), a vicious dragon-witch hybrid who has been imprisoned in the bowels of the Earth ever since her half-brother, King Arthur, vanquished her centuries earlier.
The grim prospect of Morgana’s return will have unexpected consequences for a sweet, spirited 12-year-old named Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), who lives with his mother (Denise Gough) and has a deep love for stories about Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Alex gets no shortage of opportunities to display courage and honor at school, where his bumbling best friend, Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), is relentlessly picked on by two older bullies, Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris). While fleeing those mean kids one night, Alex hides at a construction site and frees a sword from its rocky sheath, not yet realizing that he is holding the legendary Excalibur itself.
If the names Bedders, Lance and Kaye haven’t already tipped you off as to what’s in store, I won’t spoil the fun, though it would be hard to do so in any case. No description of Merlin, for instance, could really rob you of the pleasure of seeing Patrick Stewart in a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, to name just the weirdest of the great wizard’s many incarnations. (He is also played, at various instances, by a computer-generated owl and a witty young actor named Angus Imrie, who lends every feat of sorcery a goofy, Gumby-limbed physicality.)
As Merlin explains, Alex and Bedders must fulfill a series of quests if they hope to keep disaster at bay. One of their more difficult challenges will involve joining forces with Lance and Kaye, thus proving that no bully is beyond redemption; another task will force Alex to confront some painful family truths.
The occasional creakiness of the narrative machinery is largely dispelled by Cornish’s flair for brisk, energetic action and his ability to keep the journey flowing from one mini-adventure to the next, whether his characters are being whisked through a magic portal at Stonehenge or keeping Morgana’s nasty minions at bay.
“The Kid Who Would Be King” has an uncommon ability to treat the conventions of big-screen fantasy with equal parts earnest seriousness and offbeat humor: Just when you think you’ve had your fill of swordplay and spell-casting, Cornish will spring a priceless tongue-in-cheek gag involving a Ren Faire souvenir shop. His story pays instinctive homage to popular ’80s adventures such as “The Goonies” and “E.T.” (Cornish was a co-writer on Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin”), but it is no less aware of some of the more imposing standard-bearers of its genre, from “Harry Potter” to “The Lord of the Rings.”
It’s likely no coincidence that Louis Ashbourne Serkis is the son of Andy Serkis, the motion-capture chameleon who captured the twisted soul of Gollum in Peter Jackson’s “Rings” trilogy. It remains to be seen if the younger Serkis has inherited his father’s versatility, but here he makes a thoroughly engaging protagonist who matches the movie he’s in: sweet but uncloying, brave and true, ridiculous and inspiring.
‘The Kid Who Would Be King’
Rating: PG, for fantasy action violence, scary images, thematic elements including some bullying, and language
Running time: 2 hours