In Disney’s earnest and lovely Queen Of Katwe, 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi sells corn on the streets of her impoverished Ugandan neighborhood of Katwe in Kampala. Her mother Harriet sells vegetables, trying to make a decent enough living to bring up her kids, but when Phiona discovers a strong aptitude for the game of chess it upsets the apple cart so to speak. Taking part in the local chess classes from trainer Robert Katende, both Phiona and her new mentor see she has potential far beyond the others, and her talents for the game soon take her beyond the confines of Katwe and eventually into some major competition.
As I say in my video review above, this is a 100% true story that has been a labor of love for Disney and its filmmakers during the course of the six years it took to bring it to the screen. It is attached to the Disney family label — a markedly different kind of live-action movie aimed at kids that is not your typical studio family fare, but one that should resonate with its target audience given half a chance. The great Indian director Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay, Monsoon Wedding) brings to William Wheeler’s script (based on the ESPN magazine article and book by Tim Crothers) equal amounts of heart, grit and, above all, authenticity. The story of a kid rising above her circumstance and given a chance to show her gifts to the world is done in uncompromised fashion here even if the basic premise is somewhat formulaic. We’ve seen stories like it before, but that the studio is willing to put one out there right from the heart of Uganda and cast it so intelligently makes this a cut above.
At its center is Madina Nalwanga, who believably plays the real-life Phiona, and the other charming kids in the film are basically locals and for the most part not professional actors. Lupita Nyong’o, the Oscar winner from 12 Years A Slave, is excellent as the mother who fears her daughter will ultimately be disappointed and tries to prevent that heartbreak. David Oyelowo is Katende, and plays the role with great spirit and verve.
As demonstrated by the on-screen coda showing the real-life people next to the actors who played them, this is a story true to its roots. That is ultimately what makes it work so well, even if we can guess the outcome. An earlier film this year, New Zealand’s The Dark Horse, had a similar premise with a man helping poor kids beat their environment by learning chess and going to national competitions. That movie, like this one, was also a winner, but I have a feeling, thanks to Disney’s marketing machine, that Queen Of Katwe and its inspiring message will be travelling a lot further down the multiplex route.
Disney was able to make gold out of another offbeat story — 1993’s Cool Runnings, about the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team — and could do the same here. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and out of some 300 films was voted by audiences into top three. Not a bad start. John Carls and Lydia Dean Pilcher produced for Disney, which releases the film in select theaters Friday before going wide September 30.
Do you plan to see Queen Of Katwe? Let us know what you think.