When you sit down to watch Queen of Katwe, you are first greeted by the Walt Disney animated logo, in all its sparkly glory, while cheerful African music plays in lieu of "When You Wish Upon a Star". And at that moment, you might think, My God, this movie is going to be pandering and horrible. Instead, what follows is a nicely restrained biopic about Phiona Mutesi, the dirt-poor Ugandan teenager (Katwe is a slum in Kampala) who became a world-renowned chess whiz. It's a fitting tribute to a quiet girl who mastered a quiet game.
This being an underdog sports movie, Queen of Katwe is rather predictable, but the journey is still rewarding. Newcomer Madina Nalwanga shines as Phiona, David Oyelowo is very sweet as Phiona's chess coach, and Lupita Nyong'o finally gets to flex her acting chops again, in her first major role since her Oscar-winning turn in 12 Years a Slave, as Phiona's headstrong mother.
What I like most about Queen of Katwe is that there is no "white savior" here to guide this African girl to greatness: these Ugandans are doing it for themselves. (Completing the movie's knack for landing just the right talent at just the right time, its director, India-born and Hollywood-enriched Mira Nair, is married to a Ugandan academic and has run a nonprofit filmmakers' lab in Kampala for over a decade, so she knows these people well.) Furthermore, Katwe and its environs are neither romanticized nor overdramatized; African poverty is depicted honestly, with those suffering from it still finding a way to live full lives, regardless of the hand that's been dealt them.
This is a "family movie" in the best sense of the word. It's thoughtful, vibrant, and genuinely crowd-pleasing. Take your smart children and/or your non-racist granny and go.