King Ralph, released in 1991 and directed by David S. Ward, is one of those films I half-remember from childhood. I know I saw the film, and I remember enjoying it. My brother even had the exact poster at right hanging in his bedroom. But I only saw it the one time, and like a lot of films I saw exactly once when I was just barely a teenager (or even younger in some cases), I didn’t remember much of the film. So, despite seeing that it doesn’t seem to be highly regarded on IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes, I decided to see how well it held up now that I’m an adult.
You know what? I think this film is unfairly maligned. It’s still pretty darned funny.
Shocking as it may be.
The royal house of England, the Windham family (changed from the real-life Windsors), has gathered together for an extended family portrait. But carelessness with the wiring leads to the entire family being electrocuted, and the hunt is on to see if the royal historians can find any royal heir still alive. Duncan Phipps (Richard Griffiths) comes to Sir Cedric Willingham (Peter O’Toole), telling him the good news: he has found an off-shoot branch where one of the royals had a dalliance that led to an offspring. That royal’s grandchild is still alive, and is now a grown man… in Las Vegas, Nevada. And so, with great reluctance, Duncan and Sir Cedric find themselves having to crown a lounge lizard, Ralph I, King of England.
Cedric and Ralph; not exactly two of a kind.
Most of the humor comes from the extreme fish-out-of-water situation that Ralph (John Goodman) finds himself in as an American suddenly wearing the crown of England, with Sir Cedric desperately trying to teach Ralph the proper behavior for a monarch. Goodman and O’Toole play off each other perfectly, with Goodman’s easy-going slob contrasted by O’Toole’s stuffy worrier. Though the monarch is a figurehead, Ralph still has duties to perform, and that includes meeting foreign monarchs. Though he charms King Mulamboa of Zambezi (Rudolph Walker) — newly crowned himself — he has much more trouble with the royal family of Finland (in an apparent effort not to offend any real monarchs, all monarchies in the film are either fictional families or fictional monarchies entirely.) King Gustav (Julian Glover) is a much more traditional monarch, and this causes the very untraditional Ralph difficulties, as he is scheduled for an arranged marriage to Princess Anna. Anna is played by Joely Richardson, who is quite successful at comically generating the exact opposite of chemistry with Goodman’s Ralph.
Further complications arise from Ralph falling for a commoner, Miranda (Camille Coduri). I wouldn’t say it’s a strong chemistry between the two characters, but it’s believable enough, and Coduri is very good at showing the mixed emotions that Miranda has during the relationship. It also gives Goodman the opportunity to show some sadness and indignation when told he isn’t allowed to see her.
Additionally, John Hurt is not to be missed as the conniving Lord Percival Graves, who is convinced that if the House of Windham were to vacate the throne entirely, his house — and therefore himself — would wind up wearing the crown.
Here we see the common English snake in the grass in its natural habitat.
The plot may not be particularly complicated or hard to predict, but it’s a familiar plot because it can work, and it works well here. Goodman gets laughs with his dialogue and expressions and from the occasional bit of physical comedy. He plays well off of all of the other actors, and that keeps the laughs coming no matter who is on the screen at any given moment.
If you’ve avoided King Ralph due to its generally poor critical reception, give it a chance. In exchange, it’ll give you some good laughs, and that’s all one can really ask of a comedy.