Monday, September 26, 2016

Movie Review: QUEEN OF KATWE

Queen of Katwe is Disney’s latest offering in conjunction with its subsidiary, ESPN films. This film, directed by Mira Nair, follows the true story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) as she rises from the slums of Uganda to become a chess prodigy and Woman Candidate Master. This film has a beauty and touching emotional core that makes it a really enjoyable watch even if it falls back on many traditional sports movie tropes throughout.

Although the filmmakers clearly benefited from having a great true story to fall back on, Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler used the story’s emotional strength to their advantage in effectively engaging the audience. Our protagonist was clearly someone we wanted to succeed throughout and, though the movie-going audience can’t fully appreciate the extent of her destitute circumstances at the start of the film, the picture is painted starkly enough that you buy the transformation and the love and emotion layered through the remainder of the film. That strength, combined with a prototypical underdog sports tale, makes this an enjoyable and engaging film.

In addition to the relatively strong story structure, the film is brought to life by great performances from its actors across the board. If it wasn’t already obvious, Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo prove once again that they are two of the most talented actors working today. These two were the most experienced actors in the film and had a lot of the depth of the story riding on each of them and they brought it from start to finish. There were so many different emotions they had to play and elements they had to bring to the screen that really held this movie above what it would have been otherwise. All of the actors playing the young children were incredibly believable as well. They acted like children and I believed they were motivated and passionate about what they were doing throughout. Finally, this introductory performance by Madina Nalwanga was absolutely brilliant. It baffles me that she hadn’t acted before this film because she brought so much to her character that made you care about her more deeply than you likely would have otherwise.

The final great thing about this film is how real it feels. The emotion obviously felt real but, perhaps more importantly, the setting and characters felt real. It baffled me that this film had the courage to keep our characters with traditional African accents, in addition to other African communication patterns. It worked wonderfully in transporting me into this story and I felt like I had a window into another person’s life in a way I would not have had otherwise and it was really lovely to take in.

Queen of Katwe has some issues, however. It’s a very predictable sports movie that falls into a lot of traditional tropes. Throughout, bit by bit, it was easy to see where the film was and where it was going. This made it feel plodding at times and hurt the otherwise excellent emotional involvement I had with the film.

The film also struggled to maintain its focus at times. There are a lot of characters and side plots and other things going on in this movie. The film didn’t have enough time to develop these elements sufficiently, but rather paid lip service to them to keep to the true story that was the basis for the film. Many of these things just popped into the film suddenly with little to no preparation and left just as unceremoniously. I found this distracting and it made this film feel much longer and more arduous than it should have felt.

Overall, Queen of Katwe is a success. It is an enjoyable, heartfelt adaptation of a true story that connects with its audience and transports them to a world they can scant imagine to follow a hero they will come to love. This is a great feel-good movie and a worthwhile watch all-around despite its issues and occasional typicality.

Ryan’s Score: 8/10

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