I’ve been a fan of Joe Cornish ever since Channel Four’s The Adam and Joe Show began in 1996 and have followed his career as he went from tv presenter to radio dj to film writer and director, enjoying everything he’s ever done. His directorial debut Attack The Block saw him create a very British take on alien invasion movies and was a smart and funny flick, while the script he co-wrote with Steven Moffat for The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn led me to enjoy a Steven Spielberg movie for the first time in a decade. So I had high hopes that his second film would be as enjoyable as all of his other work, but alas it’s sadly not the case and something of a disappointment.
The film begins with a brief animated summary of the legend of King Arthur before it cuts to a kitchen scene where Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, who yes, is the son of Andy Serkis nepotism fans) has messed up his homework and has to rush off to school. There’s a patronisingly simple news report about the world being in a shitty place, along with some on the nose newspaper headlines reading “Misery” “Gloom”, “War” and “Fear, Crisis” because apparently in this universe they don’t have actual sentences in the tabloids. It’s quickly set up that Alex is a heroic type as he stands up against the bullies who are picking on his friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), but he gets told off by a teacher who rambles away about the world being tough and how “The world is not going to change, it’s you who has to change” because adults are almost always wrong in kid’s movies and Cornish really wants to make sure you get the central theme of the film.
Anyway, a short while later the bullies try to exact their revenge and Alex runs in to a seemingly abandoned building site, where he happens to find a sword in a stone which he steals, the bastard thief that he is. Unfortunately for him King Arthur’s half-sister Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) is hanging about under the ground and wants the sword herself, and Alex’s life is soon in danger. Luckily he’s not completely alone as a weird naked kid (Angus Imrie) pops up who speaks as if he was a couple of hundred years old, and it’s quickly revealed he’s Merlin, on hand to help Alex out. He also sometimes grows old so Patrick Stewart gets to play him, though why this is the case is never really explained.
After being attacked by the undead Alex teams up with the two bullies, Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), because apparently Arthur made his enemies his allies and Alex wants to do the same thing. Then in some painfully patronising exposition it’s revealed that Alex’s Dad left him and his mother (Denise Gough) years ago and the poor lad misses him, and believes that like Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter his Dad is actually a mysterious figure who’s involved in all of the madness, yet it’s made pretty clear that’s not going to be the case at all. But the group head off to Cornwall to find him anyway, the journey giving Merlin a chance to train his small army.
It’s not an out and out comedy by any means but it has an upbeat tone and a decent sense of humour about itself, with a lot of the funniest jokes revolving around Merlin, the best concerning where he’s able to find the beetle blood, ground bone and beaver urine he needs to restore himself. There’s also some fun moments between the rest of the cast and the adults occasionally get a decent line or two, though most of the time they have little to do which is a shame as there’s some decent actors in the cast like Mark Bonnar and Cornish’s former partner Adam Buxton. Indeed the cast in general are pretty great and the above nepotism jibe is a tad unfair as Serkis is strong in the lead role, and the rest are decent too, though Tom Taylor delivers some of his lines like a young Ricky Gervais which succeeds in making him unlikeable but which grates after a fairly short time.
Unfortunately the script is extremely uneven, some of the dialogue impresses but some of it is painfully condescending. Sure, it’s a kids film, but that’s no reason why it has to be so simplistic, plenty of other children’s films aren’t after all. A couple of elements are hard to believe too, including how quickly the kids become expert sword fighters and horse riders, and aren’t harmed in the slightest despite the fire sword wielding undead, and Morgana also has the perfect chance to roast Alex but forgets at that point she can breathe fire which is all a bit convenient. These are admittedly minor issues, but more of a problem is the way the weightier theme are dealt with in a tediously blunt manner, and it’s a shame it doesn’t benefit from a much smarter script.
It’s a very British affair and that’s not in any way to it’s detriment, but it doesn’t make use of it’s setting as effectively as it could, for one thing the world’s supposedly going to hell and there’s not even one Brexit jibe, and given the location it could have looked a lot prettier than it does. It’s a surprise it cost pretty much sixty million considering the lack of star names bar Patrick Stewart, and Game of Thrones creates special effects which are just as impressive (if not more so) and the budget for their episodes is $10 million, so six times cheaper than this. Cornish doesn’t show any directorial flourishes and outside of the action sequences it’s only competently directed, and due to it’s disappointing box office return and high budget it’s already considered a flop and Cornish might struggle to raise funds for future efforts.
Perhaps a return to lower budget film making may be a positive thing however as it’ll hopefully mean he spends more time on the script. I wanted to enjoy it but it can’t be denied that it’s ridiculously unsubtle, Cornish showed in Attack The Block that he’s smarter than this, and kids are too and I doubt they’ll enjoy being spoon fed in such a way unless they’re really young. Instead he repeatedly hammers the point home, to the extent that it gets a bit annoying after a while and even impressive action sequences and occasionally funny discourse doesn’t save it from being a very flawed creation.