Saturday, April 20, 2024

“ARTHUR THE KING”

THE STORY – Desperate for one last chance to win, Michael Light convinces a sponsor to back him and a team of athletes for the Adventure Racing World Championship in the Dominican Republic. As the team gets pushed to the outer limits of endurance, a dog named Arthur comes along for the ride, redefining what victory, loyalty and friendship truly means.

THE CAST – Mark Wahlberg, Simu Liu, Juliet Rylance, Nathalie Emmanuel, Ali Suliman, Bear Grylls & Paul Guilfoyle

THE TEAM – Simon Cellan Jones (Director) & Michael Brandt (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 107 Minutes


When it comes to true stories adapted to film, “Arthur The King” has a great story to tell. In 2014, Mikael Lindnord and his Adventure Racing team picked up a fifth member along the 435-mile World Championship course in Ecuador, a dog they named Arthur because of his king-like bearing. Alone, hungry, and with wounds on his back, the dog was a liability, but not one that any team members felt comfortable abandoning. Against all rules and good sense, Lindnord immediately adopted Arthur upon finishing the race with him in tow, rushing him back home to Sweden to save his life.

The story touched hearts around the world, making a film version inevitable. Simon Cellan Jones’s film, adapted by Michael Brandt from Lindnord’s memoir, makes several cosmetic changes to the story that are unnecessary but don’t have any bearing on the story’s ultimate message (like setting the race in the Dominican Republic of 2018, for example). However, larger changes – Mikael is now the American Michael Light (Mark Wahlberg), coming back for one last race after embarrassing himself and his team in the 2009 World Championships, with an underfunded team that hasn’t had nearly enough time to practice together – threaten to take the film so far from its original story that it begs the question, why adapt it at all?

The good news is that fidelity to the source material aside, “Arthur The King” holds its own as a piece of good old-fashioned family entertainment. People of all ages will have the same experience watching it; feeling for the characters in the same way at the same moments. This isn’t because of the film’s quality but because it underlines every emotional beat with camerawork or music to ensure an audience response. Cellan Jones does this rather well, but in a way that calls attention to itself so brazenly that it would be off-putting if not for the genuine human goodness on display. Whatever faults the film may have, it has its “true” story to fall back on whenever things threaten to get too far out of hand, and that story is a guaranteed winner.

After teammate Liam’s (Simu Liu) angry Instagram post blaming Michael for their 2009 loss goes viral, Michael drifts around in a haze. Years later, he needs to race again to prove to everyone that he’s the winner he knows he is. Sponsors refuse to give Michael any money unless he can convince Liam (with his massive social media following) to join him. Michael recruits seven-time World Championship winner Chik (Ali Suliman), recovering from a knee injury, and Olivia (Nathalie Emmanuel), the daughter of a legendary adventure racer, to the team, and Liam agrees after Michael admits to his prior screw-up. Michael’s team building is intercut with scenes of Arthur’s life on the streets, tugging your heartstrings as he scavenges for food and flees from aggressive, bigger dogs.

Adventure racing requires teams to travel between points by hiking, climbing, biking, rowing, and any other means of transportation it takes to traverse the natural terrain. It offers fertile ground for thrilling action scenes, the highlight of which is an early trip across a broken-down zipline. The impressive location photography helps convey the moment’s vertiginous terror, and thanks to editor Gary Roach’s precise cutting, it moves with the edge-of-your-seat speed of a classic thriller sequence. Since the scene comes so early on, a tragic end is unlikely, but it plays spectacularly even for those secure in that knowledge. Cellan Jones uses every tool at his disposal to place the audience in the shoes of the racers, sometimes to create a headache-inducing effect thanks to the use of shaky hand-held and GoPro cameras. This can sometimes feel like sensory overload, but it’s effective, especially for the younger audience members who are more used to seeing videos in this style.

Once Arthur starts following the team, the film switches gears a bit to become more character-focused. Despite their efforts, the dog won’t leave them, and each team member has a moment where their desire to win is contrasted against the human decency required to help Arthur. Emmanuel, Liu, and Suliman all do incredible physical work while finding moments to inject some personality into their characters, refusing to blend in with the background. Wahlberg’s tendency to underplay big emotional moments helps mitigate the overwhelming score, and he charts the self-proclaimed “not a dog person” Michael’s journey towards being owned by Arthur with moving sincerity. However, the real star of “Arthur The King” is Ukai, the rescue dog who plays Arthur. If you thought Messi, the “Anatomy of a Fall” star who took 2023 by storm, was the most talented dog in movies, think again. Fierce, instantly lovable, and painfully believable when succumbing to injuries, Ukai gives a better performance than some human actors have given this year.

It would take a heart of stone to have an unemotional response to Arthur’s journey, but Cellan Jones and composer Kevin Matley don’t trust the material enough. Every emotional moment drowns in treacly strings and piano, nearly undoing all the hard work of the cast. The film also has a bit of a nationalistic streak, with its emphasis on winning at all costs and casting Michael’s all-American team as underdogs going up against better-funded international teams, which feels weird when the real Mikael was the captain of the first Swedish team to win an international Adventure Racing competition. The race result is also changed for the film in a way that imparts a very different lesson to the audience than the actual story.

Do these changes make for a more dramatically compelling story than what really happened? For some viewers, it very likely will. To others, especially those who know the real story, it can feel disingenuous to connect Mikael’s story to such distinctly American themes when his story has such a universal emotional core. Still, no matter how much else has been added to it, the story of “Arthur The King” never loses sight of its heart, and that’s enough to make it work.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - A heartwarming true story that plays equally well to children and adults without pandering to either. A fantastic canine performance.

THE BAD - A shamelessly manipulative score underlines every emotional moment.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 6/10

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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Latest Reviews

<b>THE GOOD - </b>A heartwarming true story that plays equally well to children and adults without pandering to either. A fantastic canine performance.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>A shamelessly manipulative score underlines every emotional moment.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>6/10<br><br>"ARTHUR THE KING"