A children's adventure with 1980s vibe



120 minutes/Opens today/4 stars

The story: Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) and his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) are 12-year-olds persecuted by bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris). When Alex one day pulls a sword from a stone, his life changes. An ancient evil, the sorceress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), awakens, with a desire to enslave all of England.

This is the sort of film that went out of style years ago – kids go on an unsupervised adventure, foes become friends, they conquer their fears together and save the day.

The distinctly 1980s vibe might be something writer-director Joe Cornish has lifted from, say, E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982), but he makes the film all his own.

There is, for example, the strong British flavour. Louis is a fine actor and an engaging screen presence, but he will never be mistaken for the standard American kid hero. His larger frame and round face would, at most, net him a job as the funny sidekick in, say, a Netflix production.

But the son of Andy Serkis, the actor and film-maker, shines as the kid claiming his destiny. There is a sad-sack charm to him, which gives way naturally to a steelier posture once his quest is underway.

The jokes – mostly small, usually dry – are found in the friendship between Alex and Bedders. As with boys at the bottom of the school social ladder, they have the bleak humour of those who have learnt to expect little of life. Teachers and other adults, who are all naturally unsympathetic, are also mocked.

Film-maker Cornish has a movie-nerd sensibility that resembles that of compatriot Edgar Wright (Baby Driver, 2017; Shaun Of The Dead, 2004). Both contributed to the screenplays of The Adventures Of Tintin (2011) and the Marvel superhero movie Ant-Man (2015).

Cornish, however, has a more earnest, less distancing storytelling style and his visuals bear no trace of Wright’s rock-driven energy.

Not that he needs it. He is channelling the spirit of 1980s Steven Spielberg. He succeeds, at a time when the real Spielberg, who made the soggy science-fiction adaptation Ready Player One (2018), seems to be struggling.

Recently, the flopping of movies that blend myth with modernity, such as King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword (2017) and Robin Hood (2018), have shown that it takes more than just visual effects and action tropes to make the formula work.

An unironic embrace of the Arthurian legend, one that illustrates and amplifies the timeless quality of the story, is what’s needed. This film provides plenty of that.

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