The King’s Daughter finally awakens after seven years in post-production limbo. Although shooting wrapped in 2014, the project remained hidden from the world like the lost city of Atlantis that inspired this fable. Sean McNamara’s adaptation of Vonda McIntyre’s Nebula award-winning The Moon and the Sun dodges dreary historical romance for cheeky high fantasy. This is campy, colorful fun in the vein of Rob Reiner’s legendary The Princess Bride or, more recently, Matthew Vaughn’s undervalued Stardust.
Sadly, even with a welcoming tonal change, not even the enigmatic King Louis IV (Pierce Brosnan, in a standout role that plays to his performative strengths) or his not-so-secret daughter Marie-Josèphe (Kaya Scodelario) can save this kingdom of common storytelling. The biggest unintentional irony of all is how Atlantis ends up being the easiest city to locate on Earth, its inhabitants mere victims of CGI exploitation to humanize a maverick 17th-century Princess. Scodelario and Brosnan have such strong familial chemistry that writers Barry Berman and James Schamus should have realized their fairy tale inspiration was the real anchor to this alternate history dive. Scrapping its pivotal mermaid drama and hackneyed science versus religion conflict might seem like a tall order, but surely the seven-year hiatus could have inspired a new creative itch?
No, this is not The Little Mermaid meets The Hunchback of Notre Dame, though that might have been better fusion material than what exists. He would tell you a thousand times over if he were alive, but in case you didn’t know, King Louis IV is the world’s longest-serving monarch. In The King’s Daughter, longevity is only the beginning. The next step in extending his eminence is to acquire the magic of immortality. Does it exist, or is it another of man’s tall tales that spit in the face of God Almighty?
The King’s personal physician, Dr. Labarthe (Pablo Schreiber, who gives us the Batman villain version of a mad scientist from the Age of Enlightenment), wishes to test the veracity of an ancient ritual said to grant eternal life to the divinely rightful. To keep Louis IV’s rule an indefinite one, a mermaid must be sacrificed at the onset of a lunar eclipse. This does not sit well with the King’s Holy Minister and personal confessor, François de la Chaise (William Hurt), who fears that Louis IV will damn his soul by sanctioning the murder of innocent intelligent life.
While Chaise’s luddite stance grows tiresome, his moral superiority on the mermaid matter is pretty unshakeable. However, in our current climate of rising anti-science sentiment, The King’s Daughter finds itself maligning the wrong faction to uplift a more problematic one: the Church. This is especially bizarre given there’s an entire scene dedicated to proving God’s unwillingness to intervene, even to prevent the most horrifying acts from being committed. The King’s Daughter contradicts its own belief system time and again, but at least it understands that rugged individualism is the most spellbinding doctrine of all.
Feeling a bit wistful, Louis IV also wants to mark the occasion by inviting his illegitimate daughter to Versailles. Young Marie-Josèphe never knew who her parents were, only that she was left in a convent when she was too young to remember their faces. The only parental authority she knows is one of stern indignation to anything resembling free will. There is no love lost when the Abbess (Rachel Griffiths) finally gets the call from the King’s court to turn over Marie-Josèphe, whose perfected talent with the cello makes her a fine addition to the royal orchestra.
Meanwhile, the desired mermaid (Fan Bingbing in a thankless motion capture role) is eventually captured by a group of mercenary sailors, led by the understated and dutiful Yves De La Croix (Benjamin Walker). Yves could be viewed as a bland swashbuckler, but it’s refreshing to see an actor play this archetype without leaning into machismo and flair. De La Croix’s actions are tied directly to his livelihood, not out of some inherently nefarious need to cause trouble. His moral upswing arc actually feels earned, as does his unforced connection with Marie-Josèphe. Having witnessed their chemistry solidify almost immediately, it is no great shock that Scodelario and Walker wound up discovering their soulmate bond while working onset.
Of course, sustaining love is never easy. A young heir to a dying Duke appears named Beloit (Paul Ireland), whose inheritance money could turn France’s empty treasury back into sparkling gold. Ireland is great at showing just enough pompous arrogance without turning Beloit into a sniveling caricature of an entitled rich brat vying for an uninterested girl’s affections. Also of note is Crystal Clarke as Marie-Josèphe’s lady-in-waiting Magali, who injects a historically invisible role with a tremendous amount of presence and personal impact.
The greatest acting showcases, however, come from Scodelario and Brosnan. The former demonstrates fearlessness scene after scene, and despite rushed editing, at least the filmmakers know their cuts have to match the impulsive boldness of its protagonist. Brosnan, meanwhile, radiates gallantry, affability, and even tenderness beneath his character’s royal visage. Never playing it too melodramatic or absurd, Brosnan finds a nice balance of breezy benevolence and stubborn ruler to capture the iconic Louis IV.
The King’s Daughter achieves its divine power from the sweet bond shared by its titular protagonists. Still, everything around them is a chaotic wave of formulaic fantasy we’ve watched, felt, and experienced countless times before. Not even the rejuvenating sound of Dame Julie Andrews’ narration can calm this storm of stale tales.