“Strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords,” pronounces a character in Monty Python And The Holy Grail, “is no basis for a system of government.” Evidence also suggests it’s not much of a basis for successful filmmaking. There have been a few great movies inspired by Arthurean lore, including Excalibur and Holy Grail itself, but more often than not it’s led to ponderous misfires such as the recent Guy Ritchie effort and the one where Richard Gere dodged giant, swinging axes. Now, however, along comes Joe Cornish, rebooting the legend and making strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords more fun than they’ve ever been before.
Eight years after he science-fictioned up a South London estate in Attack The Block, here Cornish chucks a different genre — fantasy — at an inner-city school. The likeable but much-teased Alex (Ashbourne Serkis) discovers an ancient blade on a local construction site, realises it’s Excalibur, and ends up embarking on a quest with his best friend and the bullies who have been making his life hell, the quartet slowly transforming into four pint-sized knights. Read that description, and it’s hard not to imagine a very silly comedy. But Cornish achieves a balance between laughs and earnestness, aided by a terrific performance from Serkis. Kid has the feel of an old-fashioned, classic kids’ adventure film, à la E.T. or Explorers, with the baddies played straight and some emotional business involving Alex’s parents.
The story is deftly told, with wit and momentum.
Those baddies are where the film’s imagination falters a little: Rebecca Ferguson brings intensity to the dread witch Morgana, but is stuck to a muddy wall for most of her screentime, while her army of hell-skeletons are undeniably cool-looking but get a little samey. Cornish compensates, though, with some striking fantasy licks, such as a training sequence involving mobile trees, and a riff on the Lady Of The Lake trope that’s really rather genius. He even manages to breathe new life into Merlin, that most shopworn of wizards. Here the sagacious sorcerer flits to and fro between two bodies, one old and one young, played by Patrick Stewart and Angus Imrie respectively.
The story is deftly told, with wit, momentum and a third-act battle sequence which cleverly recasts the youngsters’ school as a castle under siege. There are even sly allusions to Britain’s current travails, with Morgana’s assault seemingly inspired by Brexit. Let’s hope Theresa May doesn’t get any ideas.