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Kids’ movies are ready to escape Amblin’s influence

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Children’s movies like The Kid Who Would Be King keep recycling the 1980s

Photo by Kerry Brown / Twentieth Century Fox

If you’re wondering why the vaguely generic-looking family adventure movie The Kid Who Would Be King is receiving surprisingly positive reviews, look no further than writer-director Joe Cornish. He isn’t a major marquee name in the United States, but he wrote and directed the 2011 film Attack the Block, which gave a low-budget alien / monster feature a distinctly English, class-conscious spin. His film credits since then have been scant but enviable: he co-wrote Steven Spielberg’s Tintin movie with Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright, received a story credit on Marvel’s Ant-Man (thanks to his involvement in the film’s initial development under Wright), and made a cameo in The Last Jedi.

His long-awaited second film as writer-director, The Kid Who Would Be King, is his kid-friendliest project ever. It centers on a bullied English boy named Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of mo-cap king Andy Serkis) who happens upon the mythical sword Excalibur, pulls it from a stone, and realizes his destiny as a pint-sized version of King Arthur, complete with equally pint-sized knights at his side.

Reviews of The Kid Who Would Be King have largely focused on how it functions as a throwback to the earnest, kid-driven adventure stories of the ’80s, particularly the lively, playful ones produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, like E.T., Gremlins, and Innerspace. The Goonies has also been a particular critical touchstone. Attack the Block garnered similar comparisons, too, even though it came with a rougher, less moppet-friendly edge. Filmmakers born in the late ’60s and ’70s are keen to recapture some of that 1980s Amblin magic in movies like the recent 1987-set Bumblebee (the first Transformers movie to be set during the toys’ actual heyday), YA-horror features including The House with a Clock in Its Walls and the Goosebumps series, the actual horror movie It, and the failed franchise-starter Monster Trucks. Plus, of course, there’s Netflix’s streaming TV sensation Stranger Things, which is openly based on Spielberg’s work.

But ’80s nostalgia has been in vogue since at least the late-’90s. And it’s particularly hard to fault this specific strain of ’80s nostalgia, which largely avoids I Love the ’80s-style irony in favor of a sincere desire to generate the magic of certified classics like E.T., Who Framed Roger Rabbit, or Back to the Future. These movies feel like a piece of the Amblin brand, while still expressing their directors’ individual sensibilities. They often jettison cutesy, sentimental kid or teenage characters in favor of something funnier and more eccentric. They’re great models for blockbuster entertainment; in fact, they’re some of the best examples of it. Even some second-tier Amblin adventures, like Arachnophobia, are a lot of fun.

Yet, maybe there’s something telling about just how often movies like The Goonies come up in conversation about contemporary kids adventure movies. Richard Donner’s kids-on-a-mission movie is beloved in some quarters today, and it has a certain authentic grubbiness that plenty of family films try their best to avoid. It was certainly a formative film for plenty of today’s 30-something and 40-something critics, especially the types of dudes who review movies on YouTube.

Photo by Kerry Brown / Twentieth Century Fox

But despite its genuine Amblin pedigree and actual 1985 release date, making it very much a contemporary of E.T. or Gremlins, The Goonies lacks Spielberg’s feel for domestic anxiety and fantastical wonder or Joe Dante’s wicked sense of humor. It’s a cute, pandering, sometimes irritating movie for kids or for nostalgic adults of a certain age. Making Goonies-esque adventure that’s a lot better than The Goonies isn’t an insurmountable task, and some Amblin imitators have done it with aplomb. 2011’s Super 8, a J.J. Abrams tribute to all things Amblin and Early Spielberg (which was actually produced by Amblin and Spielberg), is funnier, more exciting, and more emotionally grounded than The Goonies. Cornish’s Attack the Block is a worthy replacement, too.

But not every Amblin riff reaches that level. Even Cornish struggles to get there with The Kid Who Would Be King. The movie is more charming than its trailer suggests, with likable performances from young Louis Ashbourne Serkis and Dean Chaumoo, and an amusingly gangly teenage (at least physically) version of the wizard Merlin (Angus Imrie). Cornish maintains a steady hand behind the camera, moving the action along coherently without showboating. To his credit, he doesn’t hit ’80s nostalgia on the nose: the movie is set in the present, and it tries to make some points about divisiveness, cruelty, and bullying in our world. (Brexit isn’t explicitly addressed, but Cornish clearly has it in mind.)

By contrast, Bumblebee uses a lot of ’80s set dressing — vintage T-shirts, old-school amusement parks, now-retro soundtrack cuts — to make yet another Transformers movie look and sound more heartfelt than it really is. It says less about the 1980s in retrospect than E.T. said about its own era at the time. The Kid Who Would Be King, on the other hand, isn’t looking for ’80s cultural cred. Cornish seemingly just wants to evoke the feeling of kids with real problems going on an adventure, and to be fair, any movie that does this will probably be compared to The Goonies by someone, somewhere, accurately or not.

Photo by Kerry Brown / Twentieth Century Fox

At the same time, this particular movie never really comes to life the way Attack the Block or Super 8 do. Like the recent The House with a Clock in Its Walls, The Kid Who Would Be King is busy yet listless, a well-performed, kid-friendly diversion that lacks the personality of what it’s imitating. (Plenty of critics said similar things about Super 8 in 2011, but the dialogue and cast chemistry of that movie put even the well-regarded Stranger Things to shame.) Why is someone as talented as Joe Cornish dedicating himself to different varieties of Amblin pastiche?

The desire for contemporary versions of Amblin adventures mimics the way modern blockbuster filmmakers pay reverent fealty to Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Those are great pop-art movies, but they can only be superficially echoed so many times before their followers start to sound like hollow noisemaking. The imitators suggest that filmmakers are trying to copy about the same half-dozen shared cultural experiences, rather than reaching for more specific and personal inspiration.

Worse, fixating on one particular era for one particular genre can create a feedback loop of circular faux-throwbacks. It’s difficult to even pinpoint a ’90s kid-adventure aesthetic that future filmmakers might throw back to (beyond a few cultural signposts like skateboarding), and the ’00s equivalent is similarly secondhand, knocking off Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Not all of these problems are because of The Goonies, then, but it doesn’t help when so many talented kid-friendly filmmakers insist on endlessly recycling the past. Will there be a cultural record of how fantasy adventures reflect the experience of being a kid in 2019, or will it look like kids mostly went on suspiciously retro, movie-referential journeys?

Photo by Kerry Brown / Twentieth Century Fox

In some ways, it’s surprising that kid-adventure movies are still made at all. Arguably, almost every current blockbuster functions as one, only without the actual kids on-screen. Forever franchises like Star Wars, Marvel, DC, and the Wizarding World movies aren’t always specifically kid-targeted, but they’re generally made with the understanding that 10-year-olds will see them. Along with the increase in big-studio animation, there are more offerings for elementary-aged kids now than ever before. Many of them are the same franchise installments offered to adults.

This should make an “original” kids movie like The Kid Who Would Be King especially refreshing. Instead, the influences of ’80s movies, however gently they’re braided into the story, make it feel like a chapter of another franchise, a worn-out one at that: Fake Amblin, Episode Ten. There’s no reason that talented people like Cornish or his pal Edgar Wright would need to be so referential in making a kids adventure movie; imagine something as stylistically adventurous as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or Baby Driver reconfigured for younger audiences. (The references might still be there, but maybe they wouldn’t feel so obligatory.)

There’s more kid-friendly invention in the world of animation, where the Amblin influence feels less like gospel. (The most Amblin-like contemporary cartoon, 2006’s charming Monster House, was somewhat ahead of the curve on this trend.) But some of the medium’s brightest lights, like Brad Bird, use their live-action projects to skew older; even Bird’s family-friendly Tomorrowland doesn’t quite scan as a kid picture. His Mission: Impossible installment, on the other hand, proved he can make a kinetic, delightful movie even without the impossible physics of animation. Another talented animation director, Jennifer Yuh Nelson — a major force behind the Kung Fu Panda series — jumped to live-action with the terrible YA adaptation The Darkest Minds. Given what she’s accomplished in animation, it would be a kick to see her take on a purer kid adventure, one unburdened by unconvincing romances.

The failure of a movie like Darkest Minds may help explain the industry’s repeated retreats into ’80s whimsy and nostalgia. That style can be timeless in a way that third-rate YA adaptations may not. Imitating those old Amblin movies no doubt comes from a place of love and appreciation, but that doesn’t mean the long fad can’t also run its course, like any other proper series. After a decade-plus of Transformers, a two-part It, the obsessions of Abrams and Cornish, 17 hours of Stranger Things, and an eternity of Goonies nostalgia, maybe the time has come to give the kids movies of the 2030s something else to mirthlessly knock off.