Now, finally, his second movie is here and while the wait was exceedingly long, the story is worth it.
Cornish’s sophomore film, which he wrote and directed, opens Friday and is called The Kid Who Would Be King. It’s a tale of a young boy (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) who pulls a sword from a stone and finds himself in a modern reimagining of the legend of King Arthur.
The film is a rare commodity in Hollywood these days: an original, relatively big-budget studio film with a largely unknown cast, most of whom are kids (though yes, it does also star Patrick Stewart and Rebecca Ferguson). Cornish admits getting a film like that off the ground is difficult and is one of the factors in his long absence from the director’s chair, though it’s not the main one.
Immediately after Attack the Block was released, Cornish and Edgar Wright began writing Ant-Man for Marvel, a relationship that sadly, but famously, fell apart.
He was also attached to projects like Snow Crash and Rust that didn’t (or haven’t yet) gotten to the finish line, and was in contention for movies such as Star Trek Beyond and Kong: Skull Island.
So while it may seem to fans like he’s been sitting around waiting to make a new movie, that’s not the case.
“If you think about it, we exited Ant-Man about 2014, I started pre-production on this in 2016 so I would have been writing it in 2015,” Cornish told Gizmodo over the phone this week. “So, weirdly, I agree it’s a long time but also they were very, very, very busy years.”
Out of all those projects, Cornish thinks The Kid Who Would Be King finally became his second movie because even among those big franchises, this story in particular holds a special place in his heart.
As a kid, the writer-director saw both Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and John Boorman’s Excalibur around the same time and his fertile imagination dreamt up a kind of hybrid, a movie about a child in the King Arthur myth. “It was kind of my wish-fulfillment movie,” Cornish said. “It’s a wish-fulfillment story for the kids in the movie but it’s also a wish-fulfillment story for its director who thought of it age 12 or 13.”
Not only is The Kid Who Would Be King inspired by family-friendly fantasy films of the ‘80s, it genuinely feels like one too, which was important to Cornish. He, like many of us, has noticed that Hollywood rarely makes live-action movies for kids, starring kids, anymore.
“I remember so fondly the experience of going to the movies and seeing myself onscreen when I was a kid,” he said. “I was about the same age as Henry Thomas in E.T. and as Kelly Reno in The Black Stallion and all these great movies that were for kids with kids in them. Films that had the audience in them. And I missed that. I wanted to bring it back.”
Now, obviously, there are movies made for kids these days. They just aren’t movies like The Goonies or Gremlins or The Sandlot. Either adults star in kid-friendly stories (such as many superhero films) or the films are animated. Cornish didn’t want either of those things.
“I think it’s important for kids to see the real world reflected and their real experiences reflected, especially in fantasy movies,” he said. “I don’t know about you but when I was a kid, I would imagine fantastic things happening in my life all the time. That’s what kept my imagination alive and that’s what kept me sane, really, as a kid. So it’s important for fantasy to connect to kids reality. If they’re just fed a diet of adults in Spandex and animated CGI characters, I’m not sure it’s quite as nourishing as what our generation got.”
To really understand today’s generation of kids, Cornish and his producer Nira Park went to the source. They visited various schools and asked kids what they did or didn’t know about King Arthur, the Sword in the Stone, Knights of the Roundtable, all of it.
“All the kids we spoke to knew the legend of the sword in the stone but, when you ask them what it meant, they got a little bit confused,” Cornish said. “It’s such an archaic idea. Such a weird device for choosing a king... [Plus] there’s already a Royal Family and that is not how the Royal Family is chosen.”
The Royal Family, of course, is chosen by birth, not by pulling a piece of metal out of stone. So when Cornish realised the idea of anyone being able to be king was unfamiliar to this generation, it let him know he was on the right track. That disconnect lined up with the message he wanted to get across with The Kid Who Would Be King. A message that feels very similar to one being preached in other popular franchise films such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
“There’s this weird underlying message in a lot of popular mythology, particularly British mythology about hereditary privilege,” Cornish explained. “The notion that there’s a lineage of Skywalkers or Potters and it’s very prevalent in Oliver Twist and in King Arthur. That there’s a foundling who’s brought up as a normal kid who then discovers this incredible inheritance. And it felt to me like a slightly troubling message to be telling to kids. That they have to dream they’re secretly princesses or secretly heir to or orphaned from these amazing families.”
“Really what we should be telling kids is it doesn’t matter who your parents are or where you were born,” he continues. “It’s about what you do and what decisions you make. You’re your own person, really. That things should be meritocratic not hereditary. So that was the idea, to subvert that notion and let the kids in my movie rewrite that mythology for themselves.”
In fact, the idea of rewriting your own mythology spreads out of this movie and into Cornish’s career as well. He knows “exactly” what he’d do in a sequel to The Kid Who Would Be King, if audiences turn up and he’s given that chance (one hint is it would introduce Guinevere, who is not in this movie).
He’s also very open, excited even, to potentially continue another mythology he helped created, 2011's Attack the Block, which starred a young John Boyega and as well as Jodie Whittaker, who we now know better as Finn from Star Wars and Doctor Who.
“John [Boyega] and I [have] talked about it the whole time and yes we do have ideas,” Cornish said. “I think at the moment we’re both enjoying doing different stuff, but the nice thing about that is we can do it at almost any point. You can return to those characters [anytime]. But we both have a good idea of what would happen and how it would happen.”
We have a good idea, as well: More. Joe. Cornish. Movies. Please. And no eight-year wait in between, either.
“I will try not to take as long next time,” the director said. “I hereby make that pledge.”
The Kid Who Would Be King opened January 17.