Queen of Katwe is a heavy-handed variation of the Disney inspirational sports drama formula, but a sincere and well-meaning one too.
Queen of Katwe tells the true story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) – who as a young girl grew up in Katwe, an impoverished region of Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. 10-year old Phiona spends her days selling maize and helping her family, including her siblings and single mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o). However, Phiona’s world is forever changed when she crosses paths with Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a well-educated man serving as a missionary who coaches soccer (being a talented player himself) and teaches local children how to play chess.
Phiona proves to have a natural aptitude for chess and, thanks to her fascination with (and determination to master) the game, soon develops into one of the best players under Robert’s tutelage. Robert, recognizing the opportunities that he can help make available to them, begins taking his students to chess competitions – where a number of them (including Phiona) thrive – and taking steps to provide them with additional schooling, in other to further improve their quality of life. Although Phiona continues to succeed and evolve as a chess player, her gains end up causing friction between her and her mother – as Nakku knows all too well that one misstep (or in Phiona’s case, losing a game) is all that it takes to shatter the dreams of someone from Katwe.
Walt Disney Pictures has a long track record of turning real-life competitive sports stories into formulaic, yet endearing, inspirational and family-friendly dramas – movies like Miracle, The Rookie and Invincible among them. The Mouse House and acclaimed director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake) bring another real-life story to the big screen in that tradition with Queen of Katwe, a film that should please those who are in the mood for a proper uplifting moviegoing experience – even one that falls well short of being a mold-breaker for its sub-genre. Nair, as a director, does succeed in delivering touching familial drama as well as charming character moments throughout Queen of Katwe; yet at the same time, serves up a story full of metaphors and dialogue that tends to be on the nose, even by the standards of the Disney inspirational drama brand.
Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler (The Hoax, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) draw here from Tim Crothers’ ESPN magazine article-turned biographical book, titled The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster – something that explains why this chess drama has a structure that brings to mind many a film about a physically-competitive sports before it. Like last year’s Disney-released McFarland, USA, Queen of Katwe better differentiates itself from its predecessors by focusing more on the plight of its under-privileged protagonist(s) and never losing sight of the fact that for them, the stakes go beyond simply winning or losing. However, the hardships and challenges facing the leads in Queen of Katwe are presented in a by-the-numbers manner, causing most of them to come off as being more contrived and less impactful than intended.
The way in which Queen of Katwe frames Phiona’s story also makes it difficult to suspend disbelief (even in-the-moment during the chess games) and doubt that she will ultimately triumph; fortunately though, the film is more successful (and, at times, more interested) in creating a richer sense of place and culture. Nair and director of photography Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave) embrace a crisp visual style and expressive color palette in order to photograph the film’s Ugandan setting in a manner that makes its feel truly alive and bustling on the big screen – highlighting visually-striking locations around the actual Katwe (as well as Johannesburg, South Africa, in certain scenes) so as to better set the tone of the narrative at any given moment. Queen of Katwe does right by the people of Katwe with its representation of their home and daily way of living, even if it does so through the lens of a paint-by-numbers storyline.
Newcomer Madina Nalwanga shines in the role of Phiona Mutesi, aptly capturing the character’s quiet determination and intelligence without even losing sight of her vulnerability – stemming from her own awareness that winning means much more than getting to call herself champion. Mutesi also has a nice chemistry with her costars David Oyelowo and the Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o, the latter of whom does strong work of her own in the role of Phiona’s independent and world-weary mother, Nakku Harriet. That being said, Nakku’s story thread ends up being the least effective among the film’s three main leads – often serving to complicate things and/or to provide obstacles for Phiona to overcome in a manner that don’t always arise organically from the proceedings.
While there’s never really any doubt as to where Robert Katende’s character arc will go in Queen of Katwe, Oyelowo adds another great performance to his belt here – painting Robert as a compassionate teacher and kindly father-figure to his students, while at the same time acknowledging that the character’s ambitions and work ethic can be a double-edged sword. Robert’s interactions with his students are fun and often fee as natural as the young actors who are playing them, especially in the case of Ethan Nazario Lubega as Benjamin. Other supporting characters (like Robert’s wife Sara, played by Esther Tebandeke) are played well, but also tend to be either painted in overly broad strokes (see the snobby upper-class school attendants and students) or, in the case of the story thread that involves Phiona’s sister Night (Taryn Kyaze), largely there to complicate matters.
Queen of Katwe should be most appealing to those filmgoers in search of uplifting entertainment that the whole family can enjoy, all the more so because it showcases people, places and cultures that are far from typical for mainstream Hollywood studio fare. Queen of Katwe is a heavy-handed variation of the Disney inspirational sports drama formula, but a sincere and well-meaning one too. Because of its earnest nature, those who are intrigued by the premise of the film alone may find themselves more forgiving of its shortcomings, as well as appreciative of the ways in which Nair and her collaborators do manage to distinguish their addition to Disney’s “based on a true story” collection from the rest of the (growing) pile.
Queen of Katwe is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 124 minutes long and is Rated PG for thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material.
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