First things first: clearly, it should be The Boy Who Would Be King, if indeed it must be a riff on The Man Who Would Be King at all, which I rather dispute. That is not, after all, a reference to the voluminous body of myth, fantasy, legend, and romance centered on King Arthur, and The Once and Future Kid was sitting right there, even if it makes little sense. But all of that is besides the point: The Kid Who Would Be King is what we've gotten, and by any title, the film is the thing that matters. To a surprising degree, even. Considering what trashy boilerplate this should have been - it sounds like a shitty YA adaptation that doesn't even have the benefit of having been based on pre-existing material - that this turns out to be such a bright, fun, and above all thoughtful attempt to make a 2010s version of a 1980s children's fantasy adventure is hugely shocking.

To be fair, it shouldn't be that surprising. The film is the second directorial outing for Joe Cornish, a television comedian whose other feature was the superb 2011 sci-fi horror-comedy-thiller Attack the Block, one of those movies that's not exactly underrated (everybody who's seen it loves it), but is unquestionably underseen. That looks like it's going to be the same fate that shall meet TKWWBK, which is by no means as robust an achievement as Attack the Block, but still manages to succeed pretty handily at the things it tries to do. And in the process, it brings most of the skills Cornish demonstrated in his debut intact: once again, the setting is a lower-class, multi-cultural slice of England that calls no specific attention to either of those modifiers, but still feels like it would be horribly incomplete without both of them; the tone is again one of celebrating the strengths of a genre while nudging at its weaknesses with good humor that never quite transforms the film into an outright comedy; the performances, then as now, are uniformly strong. Cornish even brings over the great eye for eerie monsters with glowing eyes and distinctly inhuman ways of moving that made Attack the Block seem so creepy no matter how many other competing tones it was going for, making a film that's genuinely scary and intense by kiddie-horror standards. And this is perhaps the single most '80s thing about it: that was the last decade when "family-friendly" and "actively scary" routinely walked into theaters hand-in-hand, and I will happily state that if this had come out back then, when I was of an age to love it the way it's supposed to be loved, I would have watched this film to the point of exhaustion.

One would guess none of this from the boilerplate Chosen One hook: so there's this kid, Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of mo-cap expert Andy) who lives with a single mother (Denise Gough) in a council estate. He mildly resents her basically for being the parent who has to be an authority figure while he's free to imagine whatever he likes about his long-lost father, who exists mostly in the form of a dedication on the first page of a book about King Arthur and his knights illustrated with comic-style art (the film's opening summary of Arthur's reign and fall, done in a 3-D version of this flat, brightly-colored artwork, is its aesthetic highlight). Meanwhile, he and his friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) live a wretched hell as first-year students at the nearby school where their obvious nerdy interests make them targets for bullies Kaye (Rhianna Doris) and Lance (Tom Taylor). One particular evening, the two of them chase Alex into a construction site, where finds the damnedest thing in the form of an old broadsword sticking out of a concrete. He pulls it out almost without thinking, and within 24 hours finds himself chased by horrifying fiery skeleton knights by night, and annoyed by a very strange gangly teenage-looking fellow pretending to be younger and doing a horrible job in general of hiding the fact that he is the present embodiment of the wizard Merlin (a wonderfully off-kilter Angus Imrie, with Patrick Stewart stepping in to lend merry gravitas in the few moments where Merlin has cause to look older). Turns out that Alex is now the one hope to prevent all of England from falling under the rule of the undying witch queen Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), who will be able to return to the mortal world during the solar eclipse four days in the future, her bonds having been weakened by the general state of disarray in the world, and particularly the horrible way that England's people are turning against each other in hate.

A subtle anti-Brexit message was certainly nothing I expected from any of this (no more than I expected it from Paddington 2, to cite the last British-made children's movie that's actually quite lovely despite opening in the United States in January and immediately bombing at the box office), and it's as good a place as any to dig into what makes The Kid Who Would Be King better than it ought to be. Not because it's a message movie, but because it's got enough of a brain to think about making those sorts of connections, and enough faith in its audience to leave them almost completely unstated. That audience, I'll remind you, having a target age of around 10, which is the other nice thing about the film: it absolutely does not speak down to children, acknowledging as very serious and meaningful the way they look at the world, and how they experience unhappiness, even as it makes it clear throughout that Alex understands less than he thinks specifically because of his age and lack of experience.

This all results in an effectiively heartwarming film, but it's also a fairly good fantasy adventure on top of it. The not-inconsiderable budget doesn't show up in the CGI, which is gorgeously designed (the skeleton knights are wonderfully detailed, and the cavernous Hell where Morgana lives is downright Dantean), but a little too slick and never particularly well-composited in with the characters. But it all manages to work even so, in large part because the script is so palpably in love with the Matter of Britain; it is rife with fussy details and a general sense of delight in explicating how everything works, and frankly it's the most satisfying (only satisfying?) Arthur-related movie since Excalibur way the hell back in 1981. On top of which, Cornish and cinematographer Bill Pope shoot the locations (which are also Cornish) with sweeping angles that capture the landscape at its most grand and mythic, leaning into the primeval Englishness of the material. It helps that the cast is so free from any self-consciousness about the fluffy green screen nonsense around them, from Stewart (who doesn't remotely act like he's aware that he's Patrick Stewart) down to all of the young people in the cast. They're committed to it, and that's the film's secret weapon: it's all a fun fantasy lark, but it never acts like a lark; it acts like magic teleporting standing stones and fiery skeletons should be treated with exactly the same level of real dignity as the story of a boy learning ugly truths about his idealised father. The film's refusal to wink at this, even while it never stops having fun with it, is a crucial, if almost undefinable approach that makes this an unusually successful children's fantasy, one of the few live-action versions of that genre in recent memory that simply works.