Walt Disney Pictures, as a studio, seem to like to release movies as part of a range. Whether it’s their Animated Studios range, their Nature Documentaries, the live action remakes of their old animated hits or something they bought (Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, The Muppets, whatever), everything fits into a nice little box. But one range that I often forget even exists is the Disney sports movies.
You’ve almost certainly seen these some of these movies – Cool Runnings, Remember the Titans, The Mighty Ducks, Million Dollar Arm – if you’ve not seen any of those, then you really hate sports. But, even if you do hate sports, Queen of Katwe might be your speed. Sure, it follows the same basic formula of triumphing over the odds that all of these Disney sports films have. But it’s about perhaps the least physical of all the sports – you could even argue that the sport isn’t even a sport. Why? This movie is about a chess champion!
The titular Queen of Katwe is Phiona Mutesi, a young 15 year old girl living in the slums of Katwe in Uganda. Phiona is uneducated an living in extreme poverty. In order to survive, she and her siblings are forced to sell maize on the street, in a regime of hard work and discipline enforced by their well meaning but hard nosed mother. But when a representative of a sports outreach program introduces Phiona and her brother to the game of chess, it is found that the uneducated girl was particularly gifted at the game. This film follows Phiona’s journey as she enters the world of competitive chess while still living in poverty with her mother.
You can probably imagine how powerful this story was for me. I love chess. I know how all the pieces work – the castle, the horse, the one with the knobbly bit at the top. I know them all!
Looking at the synopsis, it does look very much like the formulaic Disney feel good formula, and for the most part this is true. But, more than anything, this film is set apart from its contemporaries by the performances. The film is led by newcomer Madina Nalwanga as Phiona, who is very solid in the lead role and hopefully someone who audiences will see more of further down the line, but the true power performances come from David Oyelowo (The Butler, Selma) as Phiona’s chess coach Robert Katende and Lupita N’yongo (12 Years a Slave, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) as Phiona’s mother. Their energy literally lifts this movie up a few pegs, and N’yongo, already an Oscar winner for 12 Years a Slave, could well be a chance at another one for her role here. Her performance led to a moment towards the end of this movie that made me well up a little bit – something I wasn’t expecting in the inspirational chess movie.
This film is also, I think, very much worth a watch due to the way that is presents the issues of poverty and the stigma that surrounds it in parts of the world like Uganda. Throughout the film, it is made clear by many characters that the time period they are living in is remarkable purely because there’s no war going on. War, unrest and a very steep class divide are all portrayed in this film as a fact of life in Uganda – not in any brutal detail, this is still Disney – but I certainly found it very eye opening.
Still, at the end of the day, this movie suffers a bit due to its formulaic approach. An underdog, very talented but handicapped in some way, rises up the ranks of a sporting/competitive body despite an initial lack of faith from the authorities, and hardships ensue but with perseverance and motivation, the underdog pulls through. We’ve seen it time and time again, and we’ll see it plenty more times in the future.
I’m sure Disney have a particularly inspiring tale of some Icelandic synchronized swimmers or something lined up.
There are also a number of characters whose storyline goes practically nowhere. I understand that is always going to be an issue when adapting a true story, and that these characters were people important to the real life Phiona, or the real life Robert Katende, but they take up a bit of screen time and then seemingly disappear. This is an issue with storytelling that needs to be balanced in true stories (portraying the truth vs crafting a contained story) and I don’t think the balance was quite right here.
Overall though, this was a fine movie – uplifting and filled with great performances, even if a little bit of a throwaway.
3.7/5 – While not my favourite of the year, I suspect this film could garner a cult following.
Another Bloody Critic would like to pay its respects to Peter Vaughan, the respected character actor who appeared in multiples films and television series, but perhaps best remembered as Harry Grout in Porridge and Maester Aemon in Game of Thrones. Vaughan passed away today at the age of 93, and his contributions to the big and small screen will not be forgotten. RIP Peter Vaughan