Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Queen of Katwe (2016)

Film: Queen of Katwe (2016)
Stars: David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o, Madina Nalwanga
Director: Mira Nair
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

Live-action Disney movies are, at this point, a part of all of our youths, at least if you're under 70.  Since 1950's Treasure Island, Disney has been adding to their family-friendly image with decades worth of live-action films.  Though the studio's iconography and bread-and-butter remains its iconic animated features (where it doesn't have to pay licensing fees to specific actors, hence why Giselle isn't part of the Disney Princess line), it's actual output is more inline with live-action movies.  Queen of Katwe, for example, is the sixth live-action film to be released from the studio this year, and it falls inline with the most beloved of Disney movie tropes: the sports film.  Unfortunately for me, I generally don't like sports films and really don't love Disney's live-action films.  I find them too formulaic, too personality-driven rather than based on story or making something interesting rather than just pleasant.  The film is also mired in my other pet peeve about movies, the true story (fiction is more interesting than real's just not always as terrifying, as we've witnessed for the past year's worth of election coverage).  As a result, I went into Queen of Katwe not really expecting much, other than crossing off a potential Oscar nominee off of my "to watch" list.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film is about Phiona (Nalwanga), a young girl growing up in the slums of Uganda who, by circumstance, meets Robert (Oyelowo), a missionary who has an excellent penchant for chess.  While teaching Phiona, he realizes that she has an extraordinary ability in the sport, and begins to tutor her, all-the-while troubling her mother Nakku (Nyong'o), who has to deal with a girl that is pondering dreams that seem outside of her realm to deliver.  As the film moves on, it hits familiar beats like Phiona realizing hubris, but then overcoming her adversity to become a true champion of the sport and move her mother into a house all her own.

It's the sort of story you read in a magazine and are incredibly moved, or watch in a special on ESPN and tear up a bit at the end, but it's also the sort of movie that, when confined to a movie theater, you're sort of pondering and thinking "this is nice, but was it really worth spending $12 on a ticket?"  I know that's not really the point here, and perhaps I'm being a scrooge.  After all, this is very watchable and Disney does a terrific job at growing the personalities of side characters, even if they usually remain pretty one-dimensional (but they're distinctive).  And it's good-this is a good movie, but it's not special, it's not particularly interesting, and it's not really adding anything complicated or fascinating to the cinematic experience.  I guess my problem here is that this is the same movie Disney has made dozens upon dozens of times.  The names and places have changed, but Disney has made this movie over and over again with little change to the formula.  It's kind of a bummer that they can't at least create something inventive like Bedknobs and Broomsticks where we invest in a new world.

The film is getting some Oscar buzz for Nyong'o.  It's relatively criminal that in the wake of her Oscar win she has worked so little (aside from a bit part in a Liam Neeson thriller, this is her first live-action role in three years, which is eyebrow-raising, particularly when you compare her to the amount or work and opportunity the non-nominated Margot Robbie got after her breakout in 2013), and she's probably the best part about the movie, but even there she's only able to elevate a character that is drawn two-dimensionally so much.  Her mother emotes, but doesn't really feel like someone other than a character who is there to reflect on others, and we get little sense (even in her shopping scene) of what she dreams about for herself.  Lupita's a real talent, but I'd love to see her work with a role that isn't as deeply defined or played to our sympathies as she's already received-anyone else wish someone like Jonathan Glazer would hire her for his next movie?  I think it'd be fascinating to see the Yale-trained actress invest in something a bit more ambiguous.

I am going with three out of five stars because the film is not a bad movie, but I leave it frustrated that we so oftentimes get (especially from Disney, but increasingly from other studios) movies that are technically good but rarely interesting.  I'd prefer to have the latter at this point more than the former.

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