Disney have been hitting some real highs at the box office this year - Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, Zootropolis, The Jungle Book and Pete's Dragon have all been part of the plethora of riches 2016 has offered and Queen of Katwe is no exception. It's smaller, quieter and less showy than the rest of the year's slate, and not what we have come to expect from them, but it is filled with equal heart, warmth and charm of their biggest smash hits, despite the smaller budget and restrictions.
10 year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) lives with her family in the slum of Katwe, Uganda. When she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a missionary program leader, she becomes fascinated by the game of chess and quickly begins to shine. Considering this as her opportunity to escape a life of poverty for herself, her mother (Lupita Nyong'o) and her siblings, she takes part in various competitions and tournaments in the hope of becoming a top player. With various obstacles in the way - including her education, personal identity and the increasing stress of the competitions and strain it is putting on her family - Phiona hopes to defy the odds and find her own square in the world.
Queen of Katwe excels because of how achingly humane it begins, continues and ends, with large thanks to the stunning portrayals of the three lead characters; Madina Nalwanga offers a thoughtfully crafted performance as the determined Phiona who wishes to grow from the hand-to-mouth existence she knows. She has some beautiful character beats and developmental arc, most of which are complimented and reflected through her relationship with her mother, played superbly by Lupita Nyong'o. Coming into her own with a powerful performance in the film's third and final act and carrying a lot of the emotional weight and heft, Nyong'o is vital in conveying some of the film's most prominent themes, while Oyelowo beautifully sets the tone with some surprisingly hilarious moments. Not forgetting the supporting cast of children either, who all add to the community that is presented with such detail, diversity and vibrance by Mira Nair's direction and Sean Bobbitt's cinematography.
Thematically the film soars with its portrayal of some quintessentially Disney themes and ideas and it never feels any less than human, warm and profoundly inspiration. Family, love, identity, perseverance and strength conjure up a truly moving picture packed with emotion and conviction, allowing audiences to feel invested in the character's lives and root for Phiona as she strives to achieve her dream, despite her troubling circumstances which make it almost impossible. It's as uplifting as you would expect a Disney film to be, but it also goes further tonally, offering a number of humourous moments that elevate the picture remarkably, while remaining totally authentic; everything feels natural, likely down to the committed performances from the cast and on-location filming. Surprisingly, much like January's Joy, Katwe also manages to ring a lot of intensity from its seemingly uninspired central elements - a chess championship - which helps sustain most of its two hour and four minute runtime.
In most cases, the formula of the Disney feel-good film and the cliches of the 'underdog' genre sail past without much reminder because of the outstanding performances and general engagement in the story, even though some of these tropes are more prominent than one would like; when returning back to the in media res that was teased in the film's opening sequence, the eventual outcome plays out as nothing more than a courteous, to bring the story full circle. The decision to open with this flash forward, and then return to the beginning to have it play out over a number of years instead, does perhaps jeopardise some of the set pieces and championships leading up to this moment as, in the back of your head, you know the story does not conclude just yet and the ending is not yet in sight. Another slight weakness of the film is its inflated runtime which does not always race by with the enthusiasm you wish it did, and know it can, as demonstrated in some of the quicker moments.
That said, with just a few minor flaws, Queen of Katwe is an inspirational, touching and memorable Disney film that champions a diverse cast and location with a great sense of gravitas from the three stirring, superb leads. It remains the type of film we all say we want to see: original content without the 'blockbuster' template, that champions its performances and story over its effects and production values. It's exactly what you hope and expect of a Disney film, both heartwarming and influential, and will be sure to inspire many who leave the theatre. It makes you laugh and then it makes you cry just moments later, crafted by people with powerful messages to tell and convey with a deep sincerity for its subject manner, reinforced by the film's credits revealing where these people are in their lives, stood next to the actors and actresses that bought them to screen - a touching moment that perfectly epitomises the care this film has for its characters and story.
Summary: Queen of Katwe is another gem in Disney's crown, with a beautifully-told story supported by a wonderful cast that fills a gap otherwise missing in cinemas and celebrates diversity and perseverance.
Highlight: The end montage updating us where these people are in their lives, stood next to the actors and actresses that bought their characters to the screen.