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Queen of Katwe – Movie Review

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Queen of Katwe – Movie Review

Rating: B- (Okay)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Walt Disney Studios

Whether annual or bi-annual, Disney finds a way to release a new inspirational sports film. With their focus shifting heavily towards effects-driven tent poles, these offer something refreshing from the Mouse House. It’s not difficult to understand the appeal of Phiona Mutesi’s story with her impressive rise to becoming a chess champion. Director Mira Nair never makes it too sentimental nor does she sugarcoat the difficult lives of those living in Mutesi’s Ugandan village. However, these pictures stick to a certain formula and Queen of Katwe is the latest of them to do so. What starts off as genuinely captivating also starts to grow overlong by the end.

What Mira Nair does best is bring the situation and Ugandan village to the screen in a way that transports the viewer there. One starts to become familiar with the town by the end of Queen of Katwe and that gives a realness to the location. The acting similarly elevates the material. Madina Nalwanga, in her screen debut, displays confidence as Phiona and the various emotions she goes through on this journey. When she becomes too accustomed to the trophy winning and fancy hotels, Nalwanga effectively shows her changing in attitude and then the eventual ride back to earth. David Oyelowo shows a willingness to win as Coach Robert, but never in a way that’s aggressive. Lupita Nyong’o does a superb job as the mother trying to keep control of her daughter, even as she becomes a world class chess victor.

The people on-screen are never portrayed as clichéd as the writing, although a couple of decade-old caricatures do make their way on-screen. The head of a chess tournament is the typical adversary who looks down upon the hero of the story until he’s proven wrong and his portrayal is hardly subtle. The attempts at humour when showing the poor children interacting with the richer chess players come across as forced and an attempt to bring levity to the production. Mira Nair is able to convey the outsider aspect with their situation just fine, so the comedy feels out of place.

Nair does well in showing the hardships in which Phiona and her family live through, along with the strong bond they share. They have to deal with evictions, floods and other issues that might plague a group of people in that class of society and it makes Phiona’s rise through the chess ranks that much more inspirational. The filmmakers manage to contrast this with the more middle class lifestyle of Coach Robert. When the screenplay goes into its past, they feel pivotal in showing why he wants to help these children and it never becomes schmaltzy. Around the third act, the pacing starts to slow and having seen a number of inspirational sports films, it’s obvious what is to come. More often than not, Nair’s understated direction helps the film, but a bit more cutting in the editing room would have made for a tighter picture.

Queen of Katwe has solid aspirations of wanting to tell Phiona’s story and it’s an important and inspirational one to tell. Mira Nair has an eye on how to tell this story and she assembled a strong group of actors to portray the real life people. However, it cannot help but fall into the typical clichés of the genre we’ve long become accustomed. It’s not hard to see the fingerprints of the studio to fit into the sports film brand they’ve cultivated for years. Thankfully, it’s closer in quality to last year’s McFarland rather than their 2014 baseball flick Million Dollar Arm. The drama is decently portrayed when showing their lives in Katwe, but it runs a little too long. For all of its good intentions, it does start to feel more like a necessary film to take a school field trip to.


Stefan Ellison

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