Although well intended, Disney’s uplifting “Queen of Katwe” is at heart just another formulaic “sports” movie about a decisive underdog beating all odds — in this case, a dirt-poor girl who escapes the slums of Uganda to become a chess prodigy. It would be easy to checkmate its every move if not for the vigor of David Oyelowo, the elegance of Lupita Nyong’o and the charm of newcomer Madina Nalwanga. They, along with a talented ensemble of child actors, hold the movie together in the face of a barrage of cliches and contrivances. Just because the story is based on a true story doesn’t mean it has to be predictable.
Director Mira Nair, re-teaming with her “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” writer William Wheeler to adapt Tim Crothers’ book of the same name, work overtime reminding you that their movie is inspirational. Accordingly, platitudes (“In chess, the small one can become the big one,” and “You must never surrender.”) abound. Call me a cynic, but even though the effort is earnest and wholesome, it’s also tedious, especially clocking in at more than two hours.
A plus is Nair’s vibrant depiction of the slums of Katwe. Her camera captures the robust jewel tones and beats of daily life, the motorbikes zipping through traffic, the crowded markets with their exotic wares, children playing soccer and selling maize in the streets. That sense of place helps immeasurably in shoring up Wheeler’s rote writing.
Nair, a Harvard grad, also uncovers a gem in Nalwanga. With exuberance and an irresistibly warm smile, she convincingly takes the film’s heroine, Phiona, on an eventful 5-year journey: From an illiterate 9-year-old novice peeking through a crack in the wall to view the children playing chess, to a 13-year-old savant who strategizes like no other. Oyelowo (“Selma”) is a figure of inspiration as her coach, Robert Katende, a man also saddled with trying to provide for his own family. Oscar-winner Nyong’o, last seen in full CGI mode as Maz Kanata in “The Force Awakens,” is back in full flesh-and-blood mode as Phiona’s disapproving mother who is also struggling to raise her other three children alone. Her Nakku Harriet is requisitely tough, but what attracts you to her is Nyong’o’s ability to vividly expose her character’s vulnerability and stubbornness.
Still, even actors as good as this bunch can’t disguise the fact that there’s nothing special about “Queen of Katwe.” By the start of the third act, there’s been an accident, a montage, disagreements, and just when all hope is lost, the climatic “big game.” Nair struggles to create suspense for that final showdown between Phiona and the world’s No. 1 player. Nair saves her best move for last, when during the end credits she stirringly shows the real-life characters beside the actors who played them. It’s the “Queen’s” crowning achievement.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
“Queen of Katwe”
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo, Madina Nalwanga, Martin Kabanza.
(PG for thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material.)