It would have been much simpler to not make The King’s Daughter. Sean McNamara’s calamitous new historical fantasy-romance bypassed a great many fair chances to excuse itself from existence, starting with the 14 years of stop-start development prior to his joining the project. Stars, directors, and production companies attached and detached themselves to a circulating script through the ’00s until shooting finally got off the ground in 2014, only for the footage to gather cobwebs for the following eight years. Paramount yanked the title three weeks before its original 2015 release date, sold it to another distributor in 2020 (who brought in Julie Andrews to salvage an impending train wreck with a heavy edit glued back together by her voice-over narration), and then they sold it to a third distributor this past October.
Now, perhaps in a bid to piggyback on the SEO bump provided by crowd-pleaser The King’s Man, a movie made so long ago that the two leads who fell in love on set have since formed a family of four, is here at last!
Sometimes, an escapee from Hollywood purgatory turns out to be an odd, sublime specimen that the studios had no idea how to handle. This is the other kind, a concept so colossally misconceived and incompetently executed that it turns into a hot potato nobody wanted to be left holding. The trouble starts with the incongruity of its component parts, an unnatural hybrid of social studies 101 costume drama, family-friendly fairy tale, and YA heartstring-plucker. King Louis XIV (Pierce Brosnan, transformed by a Fabio wig and the tape affixing it to his scalp) is suffering the midlife crisis typical of men his age, and reckons with his mortality by resolving to live forever. His spiritual adviser, Père La Chaise (William Hurt), warns against such toying with God’s will, but the less scrupulous apothecary, Dr. Labarthe (Pablo Schreiber), tells the Sun King of a mythical sea creature with an essence that can quell death.
The overlong first act finds Louis sending his top man, Yves De La Croix (Benjamin Walker), to capture the mermaid (Fan Bingbing, cast in part to secure a $20.5 million budget bump from Chinese investors), which the adventurer does with little difficulty. Things only get going when the new royal cellist, Marie-Josèphe (Kaya Scodelario), arrives at the palace, bringing with her the hitch that she’s also the King’s illegitimate offspring. Most of the film concerns her budding romance with Yves and the deeper bond she shares with the fish-woman, both of which compel her to stage a daring rescue mission before the solar eclipse everyone keeps bringing up.
Relax your mind and it might drift to the factors precipitating this bizarre rendering of Vonda N. McIntyre’s novel The Moon And The Sun. Was it inspired by the success of Twilight and Disney’s live-action Alice In Wonderland, and perhaps by lingering nostalgia for The Princess Bride? Either way, the reckless jumble of tones and tropes distorts the respective appeal of those films.
Those interested in period sightseeing will enjoy the opulent location shooting in the real-life Versailles, but are sure to be horrified by the blithely inauthentic costuming, hairstyling, and makeup. Every outfit is a faux-haute anachronism, and not even in the same way, suggesting that attendees from many different themed proms have been deposited via wormhole into the same movie. The lovey-dovey bits don’t work either; it’s questionable whether McNamara is aware that Marie-Josèphe has far stronger sexual chemistry with the CGI cryptid than the human the script has in mind for her. (That Bingbing’s facial features have been digitally Westernized is a whole other conversation.) Though Yves’ seafaring aesthetic and his climactic duel both recall Pirates Of The Caribbean, the inert, lopsided plot spends too much of its time on minutiae of courtly intrigue to ever conjure that blockbuster feeling.
If this is all starting to sound like an ambitiously amusing fiasco, don’t be fooled: Scenes saunter by one after the other, their dialogue waterlogged with talk of “believing in the unbelievable” and other soggy turns of phrase. Even the worst moments aren’t flamboyantly awful enough to earn a full gawk; they play closer to off-key, the clear result of post-production tinkering. The King’s Daughter will be forgotten soon enough, destined to be regarded as just another weird footnote on the career of a filmmaker whose 81 directorial credits include the sleeper hit Soul Surfer and the Virginia-funded revisionist Civil War travesty Field Of Lost Shoes. This time, he’s offered a movie much more fun to research and describe than to actually watch, a mistold bedtime story not nearly as compelling as the story of its making.