Queen of Katwe, B
Rated PG, 124 minutes
The familiar but uplifting "Queen of Katwe" from Disney and ESPN Films channels many cliches in the true sports film genre, but that doesn't mean you won't leave encouraged. Directed by Mira Nair ("The Namesake") and written by William Wheeler based on Tim Crothers' novel "The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster," this is essentially the African version of Bobby Fischer, with just as much heart. The film tells the story of chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), from the slums of Uganda whose world rapidly changes when she is introduced to the game of chess by Robert Katendi ("Selma's" David Oyelowo), and in spite of challenges she and her family face, rises to become an international chess champion. Don't let the familiarity or predictability of the underdog sports movie keep you away from the touching "Queen of Katwe" after all, we usually love a good underdog story, and Mutesi's story fits the bill perfectly, and as typical with these things, the sports is the metaphor for making a better way in life. Filmed entirely on location in Uganda and using many Ugandan non-actors for extras, it also helps that a story that's driven by an African-American female has a skilled director in Nair, who moves the story along well and nicely compliments its diverse tone; the expository first act is a tad slow and it goes on a little too long, but once Phiona gets into the thick of playing chess, you'll be cheering her along with the rest of the audience. Ugandan dancer Nalwanga, in her feature film debut, radiates warmth as Mutesi, while Oscar-winner Lupita N'yongo is superb as her fiesty mother, and Oyelowo gives the film some quiet strength and backbone as her motivated coach. "Queen of Katwe" is not unlike other sports films: it's predictably filled with hardship, trials and challenges (floods, pregnancy, family issues etc.), probably more than necessary and the film could've just as easily done without them, since there's a good chance that it'll turn out well anyway. Still, the entertaining, satisfying "Queen of Katwe" is a worthy story, and you'll be wise to do two things when you see it: take tissues, and stay until the end credits, when you see the actors paired with their real-life counterparts.