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Movie review: don't forget about Disney's 'Queen of Katwe'

Posted October 3

MOVIE LAND — Like many moviegoers, I’m always a bit sad to see the summer season end.

Getting caught up in capes, space battles and magic wands is part of what makes the big screen so much fun, and saying goodbye to summer blockbusters, well, that means we have another year before finding out if Iron Man and Captain American are willing to reconcile.

But there’s always one movie that gets released sometime in late August or September that reminds me there’s more to movies than computer graphics and pyrotechnics. It’s that movie where a great performance or touching story signifies another passing season and shifts my movie-going-heart from spectacle to substance.

For 2016, that movie has absolutely become “Queen of Katwe.”

Like always, let’s chat about the highlights:

The premise

“Queen of Katwe” is based on the remarkable true story of Ugandan chess prodigy, Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga).

Following three key individuals in Mutesi’s experience — Mutesi, Mutesi’s mother (Lupita Nyong'o) and chess coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) — “Queen of Katwe” captures glimpses of each figure as they try to navigate the realities of poverty-stricken Katwe, and prepare Mutesi to compete against some of the best chess players in the world.

Moment by moment

While “Queen of Katwe” follows a chronological series of events, director Mira Nair approaches Mutesi’s story almost as if she’s capturing a documentary. There is a moment where Mutesi watches her sister run away, and there is a moment where Mutesi tries to help her injured brother, but each of the story’s moments are contained within little sprints of conflict that all feed into Mutesi’s overall experience.

Ultimately, this acts as a great decision by Nair since Mutesi’s surroundings are far more interesting than any single chess match. Keeping the story’s focus on Mutesi’s relationship with her family allows “Queen of Katwe” to be so much more than just another sports movie.

Big questions

Easily my favorite parts of “Queen of Katwe” revolve around the bigger questions presented throughout the film. Without ever becoming preachy, characters are faced with very relevant, very difficult obstacles that force them to reflect on their individual values.

In one scene, Mutesi’s mother meets with Katende to ask him why he is changing her daughter into someone who wants more; not just more in relation to money and circumstance, but more in terms of identity and culture. She leaves him with the question, and I’m very much paraphrasing here, at what point does personal fulfillment become more important than your people?

“Queen of Katwe” also asks questions about poverty, privilege and race without ever standing on a soapbox or offering easy answers, but at its heart, it’s the day-to-day decisions a mother makes for her family that make this such an inspiring film.

The Disney factor

“Queen of Katwe” is being marketed as a Disney sports movie, and in many ways, that’s an unfortunate shelf to put it on. Not because there’s a problem with the Disney sport genre, but because the chess in “Queen of Katwe” is a bit of a footnote. Yes, there’s a final significant chess match for the film’s finale, but the outcome of said match doesn’t change the journey Mutesi has already traveled. In fact, the classic tension-builds and music queues that have become Disney’s go-to for sports films feel out of place and even a little bit cheap when injected into this otherwise sincere tale.

There’s not a lot wrong with “Queen of Katwe,” but the moments that do fall flat are almost certainly the result of studio notes and marketing requests.

Conclusion

“Queen of Katwe” is a beautiful little movie that welcomes in the fall and winter cinematic season perfectly.

Nyong’o, Oyelowo and Nalwanga are fantastic onscreen together, and director Mira Nair’s decision to focus on the smaller moments allows the bigger, sentimental moments to sneak up on you when needed. If it weren’t for a few forced Disney clichés (which for the record, work really well in other movies,) I would’ve considered this a project swinging for awards season, but as it stands, it’s still a solid choice for an evening at the movies.

Travis has been covering movie news, film reviews and live events for Deseret News and KSL.com since 2010 and currently co-hosts the KSL Popcorn Report. Follow Travis on Twitter @tspoppleton.

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