Starring Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o, Martin Kabanza, Taryn Kyaze, Ronald Ssemaganda. Directed by Mira Nair. (2016, 124 min).
The Disney name is so synonymous with animation that we tend to forget they've also have quite the knack for inspirational sports movies. Sure, most are so formulaic that you're familiar with the plot without even seeing them, but who doesn't love an earnest, old-fashioned sports flick where the underdog triumphs against all odds?
Disney may not have written the playbook, but they know it cover-to-cover and follow it rigidly. And why not, since they arguably do this stuff better than anybody? I'd actually be disappointed if Queen of Katwe wasn't more-or-less the same movie as Invincible, McFarland USA or The Greatest Game Ever Played. For the same reason I still listen to Slayer, in the right hands, this stuff never gets old.
As such, Queen of Katwe - based on a true story, of course - doesn't disappoint. Young Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) comes from a family whose life in Katwe, an impoverished region of Uganda, is a daily struggle to survive. Her mother, Nakku (Lupita Nyong'o) is widowed and depends on her children to help sell corn in town. Then after discovering a group of kids who meet everyday to play chess under the tutelage of coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), she turns out to be something of a prodigy.
|"No, Phiona...that's not a 'horsey'."
Katende sacrifices his own personal goals to encourage Phiona and these kids to excel at the game, which may be their only opportunity to earn an education and escape slum life. Phiona, in particular, has a phenomenal gift for strategy, winning tournament after tournament, becoming a local hero and earning the respect of the international chess community.
Depending on how you perceive chess, Queen of Katwe may not be a sports movie per se, but it's identically structured. Besides, like most of Disney's similar films, Queen of Katwe is less about the actual game than it is learning enough about oneself to overcome personal and external roadblocks. This is also Katende's story as much as Phiona's, forsaking a lucrative engineering career for the sake of giving hope to kids who aren't even his.
Movies like this depend largely on its characters and performances for the formula to work. Newcomer Nalwanga shines as Phiona, displaying a low-key charm that renders her instantly likable, even during moments of arrogance and overconfidence which alienate her family and threaten to take her down a peg or two. But these moments of conflict are few and far between, as are those which disrupt Katende's homelife. For the most part, Queen of Katwe is content to briefly touch upon such complications before rushing off the the next feel-good moment, which is why we watch these things in the first place. You'll see the final scene coming from a mile away (maybe two or three), but it's still no less heartwarming.
At a little over two hours, Queen of Katwe probably runs a little longer than necessary, especially for a film that strictly adheres to a playbook we're already familiar with. But its many uplifting moments and emotional payoffs make it easy to endure a few of the slower stretches. This relatively obscure true story lends itself perfectly to the Disney treatment, making the film an agreeable, audience pleaser.
"Queen of Katwe: Their Story" (3 part making-of documentary);
"A Fork, A Spoon & a Knight" (short film about coach Robert Katende's life and upbringing);
"In the Sudio with Alicia Keys"
AUDIO COMMENTARY (by director Mira Nair)
MUSIC VIDEOS: "Back to Life," by Alicia Keys; "#1 Spice," by Young Cardamom & HAB
PURR-R-R...LIKE A GOOD SCRATCH BEHIND THE EARS