Release date: 21st October 2016/Watch the trailer here
Disney’s Queen of Katwe is based on the true story of a young girl, Phiona Mutesi (played by newcomer Madina Nalwanga), from the slums of Katwe in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, whose whole world begins to change after she is introduced to chess. It soon becomes evident that Phiona is a natural at the game, and with the help of her coach, Robert (David Oyelowo), she starts to compete in tournaments across Africa (and occasionally even further afield), in search of a better life for her mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and the rest of her family.
It’s not difficult to see why such a story appealed to Disney. Much like Pete’s Dragon before it, Queen of Katwe is a wholesome family film, the likes of which are rare enough these days to make it feel like a real treat. Director Mira Nair has created a vivacious, vibrant feast for the eyes and ears, with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt finding beauty in every shot and with a soundtrack as bright and colourful as the film itself.
Nair has also assembled a fine cast; the now-familiar faces of Oyelowo and Nyong’o are just as magnetic and powerful as one would expect, but the children are all fantastic, too. Nalwanga in particular gives a heartwarming performance as the tenacious Phiona, making you want to laugh and cry along with her as she journeys through numerous highs (the first time she sees snow) and lows (the first time she loses a game), surely tugging on the heartstrings of even the most cynical viewers.
Queen of Katwe perhaps comes in at about twenty minutes too long – especially considering that chess is far from a spectator sport, despite some good efforts to make the game tense – but there is something here that feels fresh about what is, essentially, a by the numbers underdog story. Still, there is always something inspirational about such a tale, especially when it involves such a likeable young character triumphing against what should be impossible odds.
Did Phiona Mutesi, a young girl selling maize in the slums of Katwe in order to keep a roof over her family’s head, ever imagine that one day, a Disney film would be made about her life? Thankfully, it’s every bit as good as Phiona deserves.