September 30, 2016 10:20 am
Updated: September 30, 2016 10:22 am

‘Queen of Katwe’ review: Underdog chess story resonates

David Oyelowo and Madina Nalwanga star in 'Queen of Katwe.'


It’s tough to imagine a movie about chess being emotionally resonant, but somehow Disney’s Queen of Katwe manages to deliver.

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The story of a girl, Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), who resides in the slums of Katwe, Uganda, tugs at the heartstrings and brings to mind Searching for Bobby Fischer. Phiona overcomes multiple obstacles to pursue her chess dream, including a lack of funds, an only semi-supportive mother (Lupita Nyong’o, playing her first live-action role since she won her Oscar) and an ingrained sexism in the sport.

David Oyelowo plays her coach, Robert, who sees the promise in Phiona and does everything in his power to get her to the Ugandan chess finals, and from there, the world. Knowing the film is based on a real-life story adds a poignancy; had this been a fictional tale, it may have missed out on some of the gravitas.

WATCH: Lupita Nyong’o talks Queen of Katwe

It’s jam-packed with earnest, strong performances from the cast, and newcomer Nalwanga lights up the screen. As a symbolic mechanism, chess is surprisingly engaging, and it definitely summoned memories of childhood strategy lessons.

Are you sure it’s not boring?

It’s not. You’re not sitting down to watch a sequence of chess games. There are multiple side plots, and don’t forget these are children playing chess, which makes the movie inherently more fun. Kids still yell out, kids still get emotional when they win or lose, so chess is more of a game than a serious sport in Queen of Katwe, at least at the beginning.

Do I have to know anything about chess?

Nope. In fact, knowing more about chess might be infuriating, because the camera so infrequently pans to the chessboard it’s tough to discern the moves and strategies. If you’re familiar with the basic powers of each chess piece, you should be good to go. And even if you aren’t, it’s not going to make you want to stop watching the movie.

WATCH: David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o on Queen of Katwe

How are the child actors?

Disney and director Mira Nair did a fantastic job casting the kids of the movie. They’re charming, funny and of course cute, often stealing scenes from Nyong’o and Oyelowo. In some other films with child actors, it becomes tedious and sometimes obnoxious to watch the same kids over and over for two hours. That problem never arises in Queen of Katwe — there’s something appealing about each of the kids and their interactions with Phiona.

Interesting fact: some of the kids, including Nalwanga, are from Uganda, and before this film, had never seen a movie on the big screen ever.

OK, so it’s authentic in terms of casting. But was it shot in Uganda or in some studio?

Nair is always seeking the most authentic approach to her films, and Queen of Katwe is no exception. Yes, much of the scenes you see in the slums of Katwe are actually shot there, along with some time in South Africa. Nyong’o has said in many interviews that the shooting location helped her get into her role, and at times she would look around on-set and really feel what it must have been like to live there.

WATCH: David Oyelowo: Queen Of Katwe is “a love letter” to daughter

So what’s the bottom line?

Queen of Katwe is a heartwarming, feel-good film, and the true-story element really adds another dimension to the movie. Don’t forget that this is a Disney sports film, so of course it’s slightly sanitized, but to think that a young girl rose out of the Ugandan slums to reach worldwide fame is nothing short of astonishing.

‘Queen of Katwe’ opens in theatres on Sept. 30.

© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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