Disney has come out with yet another 2016 film that it knows will never be a huge hit at the box office, though, as with Pete’s Dragon, there are formulaic elements that make it very much a Disney film.
Queen of Katwe, which is based on a true story, stars Madina Nalwanga as Phiona Mutesi, a teenage girl living in the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, whose mother can’t afford to send her four children to school, so none of them can read. When Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a local missionary known primarily as a soccer coach, starts teaching children in the neighbourhood to play chess, Phiona looks on, fascinated, and eventually begins playing the game. Phiona has a gift for chess and Katende encourages her and the other children to begin playing in school tournaments, even if they don’t go to school.
The result is as predictable as other Disney sports films that feature underdogs struggling to reach lofty goals, but there are special ingredients in this drama that make it stand out, not least because Mira Nair directed the film. Nair has a flare for conveying a joyful energy in the most dire of surroundings and she makes Katwe a place bursting with colour and life while not minimizing the suffering or the daily struggle mothers face to provide food for their children.
Phiona’s mother, Nakku Harriet, (Lupita Nyong’o), is one such person, a loving resourceful mother who wants the best for her children but doesn’t fully trust Katende and his dreams. There are other strong female characters in the film, including Robert’s wife, Sara (Esther Tebandeke), making the film much more about women than men, which is a good thing.
There are many distinctive characters in Queen of Katwe, including the children who play chess with Phiona. All of the acting is strong, the cinematography is outstanding and the score is very good. While chess may not be the most exciting or profound way to highlight the plight of Uganda’s poor, it is used effectively as a symbol for the daily fight. All in all, Queen of Katwe is a fresh and inspiring take on a common Disney theme and gets ***+. My mug is up.