Chess gets the Disney treatment in “Queen of Katwe,” the latest in a string of sports movies from the studio, ranging from “Remember the Titans” to “The Rookie” to “The Miracle.” And while some might consider chess a bit of a stretch when it comes to being a sport, the film’s infectious charm, similar to the films mentioned, can’t be denied.
“Katwe” is based on a true story of a young girl named Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) living in poverty with her mother Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o) and siblings in a village in Uganda. Her life takes a dramatic turn when she is introduced to chess by Robert (David Oyelowo). It doesn’t take long for Robert to realize that Phiona has a gift for the game. Before long, Phiona finds herself the inspiration for her village, a chess prodigy ready to compete in the World Chess Olympiads.
Director Mira Nair lives close to the village where the real-life Phiona lives, and her familiarity with the area helps to bring the story to life, really capturing the highs and lows of Phiona’s journey. Nair’s ability to focus on the world around Phiona and not fall too much into the big game cliche boosts “Katwe.”
Phiona’s journey wouldn’t work if the audience wasn’t invested, and Nalwanga does an impressive job of making the audience care. Her performance is so seamless that it is almost easy to overlook how good and natural she is in front of the camera.
Oyelowo is also good as the mentor, but it is Academy Award winner Nyong’o who really gives “Katwe” its emotional center. As Phiona’s determined mother, she is a true inspiration, a woman who is able to overcome so much adversity and still manage to provide for her family. Nakku’s relationship with Phiona is what makes “Katwe” work as a family film, really emphasizing the strength of family.
And then there is a hook in the final credits that really punctuates the film’s emotional punch, with the real people appearing with the actors who played them in the film. Their interactions with one another are genuine and inspiring as everything else in the film – an impressive cap to a very enjoyable cinematic experience.
DVD dandy of the week
This week’s “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (B+), writer/director Taika Waititi’s follow-up to “What We Do in the Shadows,” is nearly as delightful as that previous film.
Based on a book by Barry Crump, “Wilderpeople” tells the story of a rebellious kid named Ricky (Julian Dennison) taken in by foster parents Hec and Bella (Sam Neill and Rima Te Wiata)
Just when it looks like Ricky has found a home, tragedy strikes, with the boy running away to try to avoid returning to foster care. Ricky’s attempt sets off a chain reaction that leads to him and Hec becoming the target of a manhunt when they go missing in the New Zealand bush.
“Wilderpeople” has plenty of laughs, with the same dry humor as “Shadows,” but also has a soft side as the relationship between this unlikely pair blossoms.
Dennison’s performance as the rap-loving free spirit is a delight, while Neill plays the gruff, grizzled, woodsman quite well, playing off Dennison to create some authentic chemistry to gives the film its heart.
This, like “Shadows,” is essentially about an unconventional family, and the result is both hilarious and heartfelt.
“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including violent content, and for some language and is now available on DVD.