They don’t make em’ like this anymore.
The youth of today are growing up in a cinemascape tailored to their elders. Cries are propelled around the world for harder, adult approaches to movies. Superheroes are no longer guaranteed to supply a family outing; out there shedding blood, slicing limbs and dishing a sizeable platter of expletives. There’s a real market for Spielbergian adventure movies, something as much for the kids as the adults, that isn’t animated fare. The man for the job is Joe Cornish, who after carving an unlikely cult-classic with urban sci-fi monster romp Attack the Block, and taking an eight year rest, is back to fill that void.
A colourful history lesson through pencil-style illustration recaps the King Arthur legend, before transporting far, far forward to contemporary England. The unwitting hero of the piece is Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of motion-capture maestro Andy), an everyboy who stumbles upon a mysterious sword while running away from bullies. He pulls it from the stone, and by golly, what do you know – it’s Excalibur. While he and his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) have some fun with the new weapon, rumblings through the earth’s roots signal the awakening of a dark force – evil sorceress, Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson). To guide Alex through the treacherous future is Merlin, in the forms of a rambunctious teenager (Angus Imrie), a wise old fellow (Patrick Stewart) and an owl, switching through the power of an explosive sneeze.
From the beginning tour through the dreichness of British suburbia, viewed through the eyes of our 12-year-old lead, there’s already a feeling of excitement in the air. Serkis is a strong performer, imbuing his turn with the sort of do-gooder reluctance that makes him all the more endearing. Similarly, Chaumoo, despite playing the stock role of the sparkier, loyal best friend (just like Samwise to Frodo, he says), is a delight. They’re outshined by Imrie though, the absolute star of the movie; hilariously flippant, articulate and carrying an infectious flamboyance with his limbs that kids will no doubt be imitating when they leave the cinema. Stewart’s occasional amusing appearance lends the movie some much needed gravity too.
The malign villain sends skeletal, fiery horsemen to the surface world to take down these supposed knights, chasing them through the inner-city and countryside on their quest. The fantasy actually benefits from the drabness of the English vistas (shot solidly by Bill Pope), providing opportunities for striking injections of colour and inventive detours (mainly, a fascinating take on the Lady of the Water). Cornish excels at creating grisly, actually quite frightening foes for his team to battle – in one scene they train with animated trees which turn nefarious, their tendril-like abilities making you squirm in your seat. Ferguson’s antagonist is imposing to look at, and is instilled with relative ferocity by her charisma, but one too many whispered monologues and generic motivations don’t serve the character with a tremendous amount of depth. Unfortunately, by the closing mega-climax, the culmination of storytelling legend, the visuals mash into a samey CGI-splattering that kills the rather brisk momentum the film efficiently builds up through its various set-pieces. At 120 minutes, there simply isn’t enough freshness to warrant such a runtime.
Cornish’s saga isn’t free from tropes either, such as the schoolyard bully proclaiming he’s “the king around here” (something which would probably get you bullied in return). But genuine heart permeates through the whole film; trying emotional beats between Alex and his mother (Denise Gough) may not hit hard, but its context is welcome. It’s a throwback to times where films like The Goonies, E.T and Stand By Me were the order of the day, even down to Electric Wave Bureau’s terrific score which taps into conventional epicness and the feel of retro video game. It’s not pirates, or aliens, but its cut from the same 80s cloth; a fantastical story made for the kids, with character lessons woven through the plot. There’s even references to the hollow hearts of the UK, dividing at an alarming rate. In all the despair of reality, we could all use an escape.
Cornish provides heart, jollity and a timely reminder of how far honour goes in this throwback to legendary, adolescent-led blockbusters.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm