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After seeing King Arthur: Legend of the Sword in 2017 and being disgusted, I had high hopes that The Boy Who Would Be King could redeem Arthurian films, but while it was leaps and bounds better than King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, it falls short of the magic one wants from a movie about King Arthur.

The kids in The Boy Who Would Be King, left to right:Lance, Bedders, Alex, Merlin, and Kay

The premise is good enough and the film appears to be well-intended, but its delivery is lackluster at best. The film begins with a cartoon prologue, in which we are given the story of Arthur drawing the sword from the stone. Then we are told his evil sister Morgana fought against him. She was defeated and eventually buried in the earth, but she vowed she would one day return. Arthur replied that when she did the sword would return to. This opening sequence moved rapidly and was a bit hard to follow, plus the drawing was mediocre, setting the tone for the mediocrity to come.

The main storyline, however, opens well enough. We are introduced to a modern-day young boy, Alexander, who along with his friend Bedders, is bullied by two older children, Lance and a girl named Kay. It is notable here that Alexander and Lance are white while Bedders looks to be of Indian and Kay of African descent. I applaud the film for the multicultural characters that reflect the current face of Britain. This sets the tone for a more egalitarian version of the Arthurian legend and is one of the film’s few strong points, which the film makes apparent in more detail later.

Anyway, Alex finds the sword in a piece of concrete in a construction site that he stumbles upon while trying to escape his bullies. Eventually, the bullies find him and want the sword, but when a group of skeleton-like knights appear and attack the kids, the bullies soon join forces with Alex and Bedders. Alex, of course, recognizes the sword as Excalibur because he has a book about the Knights of the Round Table that his father gave him. His father has disappeared from his life, apparently because, as his mother says, he had “his demons” but he inscribed the book as “To Alex, my once and future king.” Alex realizes that now he is King Arthur, or at least meant to play the role of King Arthur—he’s not a reincarnation—and that his friends are Sir Bedivere (only everyone in the film keeps saying Sir Bedsivere, which is very irritating) and Sir Lancelot and “Lady” Kay.

Alex begins to believe he must be from Arthur’s bloodline through his father and that his father’s demons were the real-life demons that Morgana is sending to attack them, but in time, he will learn from Merlin that this is not true. Merlin shows up as a young boy who enrolls at the kids’ school, Dungate Academy. (That Merlin is naked in his first appearance, although we only see an unrevealing side view of him, is a weird decision in a children’s film.) Merlin is a nerdy kid so Alex and Bedders at first try to avoid him since they’re already being bullied and don’t want to be bullied more, but eventually Merlin convinces the kids he really is Merlin and explains their mission to them. They must defeat Morgana before she can ascend from out of the earth and make everyone in Britain into slaves. The kids agree to the mission and despite the bullies occasionally causing trouble, eventually they band together to fight Morgana and her minions.

The film makes use of Arthurian locations by having the children travel to Stonehenge, Tintagel, and Glastonbury Tor. Unfortunately, none of these locations are used well in the film—we get no really good cinematography of them that makes them feel magical or inspiring. The most powerful moment in the film comes when Alex learns his father was just a drunk and not at all a descendant of Arthur. Merlin, who usually appears as a goofy young wizard, now appears as an adult. (Patrick Stewart plays the role, and he’s one of the few redeeming features of the film.) Merlin tells Alex that greatness has nothing to do with birth or who your parents are, and if their stories and legends say it does, then it’s time to rewrite the story—this is the egalitarianism the film promotes that I was talking about early.

The kids now get to Glastonbury Tor where they discover a secret passage into the cave where Morgana dwells. This was the worst part of the film in my opinion—Morgana is twisted up in a bunch of tree roots in the cave and she has power over trees, causing roots to come up from the ground and grab the children at times. These rootlike connections also flow over into her serpent depictions—she flies about like a flying snake or gargoyle and later as a dragon. Overall, her depiction is insulting to the character and also misogynistic. There is a long history of women being associated with serpents as a symbol of them being evil which goes back to the Eve and the Serpent and depictions of Lilith and the medieval fairy Melusine. More recently the villainess in Bram Stoker’s novel The Lair of the White Worm is a snakelike creature, as is Geraldine in Coleridge’s poem “Christabel.” No one can forget the sea witch in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and so it’s not surprising that Morgan is like a winged serpent and later she turns into a dragon—it’s just tiresome. I hate when Morgana is simply depicted as a villain—her character is more complicated in the legends, yet the film makes no effort to develop her and she barely even gets any lines. We don’t know why she was evil or hated Arthur.

Morgana’s Skeleton Army – really, yet another film with a skeleton army!

Alex quickly stabs Morgan in the cave, she’s dead, and the adventure is over. It was anticlimactic and I was ready to go home and forget the movie, but then Merlin shows up once the kids return home to say Morgana was only wounded and will attack during the eclipse. Alex then manages with Merlin’s help to rally his school to prepare for battle. The kids even end up wearing armor (which looks ridiculous since they have shoulder pads but their chests and stomachs are exposed). Soon Morgana’s skeleton army attacks, and she leads the charge in the shape of a flying dragon. Of course, good triumphs over evil, and ho hum, after a big battle scene that fails to be inspiring or creative, life goes back to normal.

The film does end with a positive message. Alex says that the world with Morgan defeated is no better than it was before, but Merlin (as Patrick Stewart, probably the film’s only real asset) explains that the kids have it in them to make the world a better place in the future. He then gives Alex a copy of the book his father gave him, only now the cover has changed to show Alex and his friends depicted on it. It will be up to them to rewrite the future and King Arthur’s story as well. (And, after all, isn’t that what every generation has done—adapted the legend for its own needs in its own time?)

Patrick Stewart as Merlin – this tender moment at the end of the film felt unwarranted – I guess Alex sees Merlin as a replacement for his lost father.

As I said, the film is well-intentioned, but it lacks true creativity or inspiration. How many films with skeleton armies do we need? If Morgana wanted to conquer the world, why would she go after a boy with a sword and attack a school? Any villain with half a brain would have headed for Parliament instead. None of the Arthurian landmarks are used to any real purpose. It isn’t even clear why the kids have to go to Tintagel or Stonehenge. Even the soundtrack is dull—music is essential for a film to make us feel emotion, but I was left not feeling anything. Granted, I am not the film’s ten-year-old target audience, but I have watched other children’s Arthurian films—The Sword in the Stone (1963) and A Kid in King Arthur’s Court (1995) come to mind—and felt the magic. The most magical moment in the whole film might be when Alex explains to his mom that the Arthurian legend is real and to prove it, he fills the bathtub with water, then asks the Lady of the Lake to bring him the sword and her hand pops up with it. This was a bit different, and manages not to be cheesy. I do give the film points for its sincerity—it never tries to make a mockery of the legend but tries to repurpose it for a new generation.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, this is one where you will want to wait for the video. Overall, I would give the film a C-. It’s two hours long—about thirty minutes longer than it needs to be, the violence is likely scary for younger children, but boring for adults who will have seen it all before, and the sense of wonder just isn’t there. There are a few worse Arthurian films like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) and Merlin and the War of the Dragons (2008), but there are also many that are better, Knights of the Round Table (1953), Camelot (1967), and Excalibur (1981) lead the list; heck, even Quest for Camelot (1998) and Prince Valiant (1954) with Robert Wagner in a ridiculous wig are more fun to watch.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, Lilith’s Love, and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, plus numerous other books. You can learn more about Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

 

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