Review – Queen of Katwe

queen-of-katwe-poster

queen-of-katwe-poster

Based on the true story of the unlikely chess champion from the slums of Uganda, Phiona Mutesi, Queen of Katwe stars newcomer Madina Nalwanga and features celebrated actors David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o.

It’s the classic “girl uses chess to rise from rags, find purpose in life, and save her family” story. I jest, yet it does feel so like similarly inspirational stories (such as last year’s McFarland USA or Million Dollar Arm the year before, both also by Disney) that you will swear you’ve seen the story before.

Newcomer Nalwanga gives a commendable, touching, performance as the impoverished African teen and Nyong’o and Oyelowo give powerhouse performances of their own as Phiona’s mother and mentor, respectively. Everyone involved, in fact, displays award worthy talent. Unfortunately those performances are lost to a script that refuses to take any real risks, and rubs up against cliches like a friendly cat on your ankles. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the film save for falling into the trap of being a cookie cutter, based on real life, inspirational, sports drama. That and it somehow seems to actually romanticize African poverty.

Yes Phiona’s family has it rough. Really rough. But never do we really feel like things aren’t so bad that they couldn’t just get better right around the corner. Death, prostitution, floods, teen pregnancy, and poverty are all edgy subjects, especially for a Disney film, but the edges are so softened by the Mouse House that they lose most of their impact and end up feeling out of place instead of being defining aspects of the culture and community surrounding Phiona’s life.

Despite the film itself, however, the actors warm and vivacious performances will keep you going, and cheering, until the end. While the movie might be too friendly to create much meaning and impact, the same should certainly not be said of these talented individuals. One must also not discount this film’s ability to make watching chess seem exciting.

Longer than it needed to be, Queen of Katwe extends just over two hours, but thankfully doesn’t feel overly lengthy. The extra time is well worn by the characters, allowing us to really get to know all of them, in all their lovely, somewhat sanitized and cliched, detail. I wish I could have been pleasantly surprised by this one, but it is exactly what you might expect going in. Nothing less, but nothing more either.

Mrs. Hamster did not screen this film

Brother Hamster did not screen this film

My rating: Three out of five hats

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Trailer:

Queen of Katwe checks into 52 theaters September 23 and expands to wide release September 30

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