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The Kid Who Would Be King has a great message that it just doesn’t understand
Hello, and welcome back to what is becoming a semi-regular installment of “let’s talk about that latest Arthur adaptation since we seem to be incapable of adapting any other story in the history of English literature.” Just a few weeks after the surprise installment that was Aquaman dominated box offices, we were introduced to yet another take on the Arthur myth, this time in a more straightforward, much younger film: The Kid Who Would Be King.
Now, as you can probably tell, I’m about to get pretty critical of this little movie that performed rather poorly in its few weeks on screens, and I want you to know that it is not because I disliked this film. On the contrary, I quite enjoyed it. I found it to be charming and thought the story did an admirable job of attempting to combine the swashbuckling urban fantasy movie with a modern critique of the chosen-one adventure film, all within the wrappings of a very easily digested, fun story for kids. It has good performances and good battle scenes and some superb lessons it's attempting to impart to its young audience and is fully a film I would show to any children someone would like to loan me for a few hours on a weekend.
In fact, it is precisely how much I liked it that almost forces me to start this discussion. Because while those wonderful lessons are, in fact, wonderful, they are lessons the movie itself doesn’t seem to fully grasp. And in a film that is otherwise quite successful in its endeavor, it really is too bad.
(And yes, before you ask, it’s because the hero is an able-bodied white boy and not one of the infinite permutations of existence that occur outside of that specific heroic archetype.)
There are two main lessons in The Kid Who Would Be King, each of which is important for young people of the upcoming generation (or any generation) to understand as they grow into young adulthood. They all center around this ever-confounding idea of power: who wants it, who has it, who deserves it. Over the course of the story, the kids at its center — though primarily Alex, the modern Arthur — learn that myths, though sometimes inspiring, are still from history, and history is written by the powerful. Often, the film adds, in an effort to keep those in power where they are. Alex, specifically, has to learn that you don’t have to be born special to be worthy. In this version of the myth, it does not matter who your family is, it only matters who you are. Leadership and honor are learned, not inherited.
Additionally, as the climax of the film draws near, Alex imparts another bit of wisdom to his schoolmates, kids who given the opportunity are happy to go about their day in small groups, teasing and bullying and segregating themselves into ever-smaller groups. He tells them that evil’s biggest weapon is convincing them all that they are each other’s enemies, because it keeps them fighting, makes it harder for them to stand up to those who are really hurting them, to those with power.In a world like the one we live in today, where it seems like hatred and bigotry are stronger and louder than ever, and the divide between those with power and those without seems impossibly wide, these are exactly the things that we should be teaching our kids. We should teach them that power lies, that who they are matters more than the circumstances of their birth, and that those in power fear those without.
But by imparting all of these lessons onto and through someone who speaks from a position of distinct social privilege, those lessons themselves lose some of their bite. Sure, this movie wants to tell kids that anyone can be a hero and a leader if they stick to a code of honor, but the hero of this movie looks like every other hero you’ve ever seen.
And yes, it wants to tell kids that the only way to spark real change is by rising up together, as equals, but it does so in a film in which women and people of color play sidekicks and villains, and where historically colonized and enslaved ethnic groups must bow down and swear fealty to a white man who tells them it's the only way to “save England from slavery.”
The Kid Who Would Be King has a big heart, and that heart is obviously in the right place. But in a world where marginalized groups are in constant, ever-present danger, and where hatred and bigotry seem to have reached a new level of cultural acceptance, and it feels like evil may truly be at the gate, shouldn’t we consider now a time to unite behind a hero for a new age?
Especially when we’ve already seen perfect, irrefutable evidence that the once and future king has arrived, and the future is most definitely female.