Dudu is a street hustler, wheeler dealer and opportunist who hitches his flag to talented football player Fabrice (Roger Nsengiyumva) after he's approached to audition for the World Cup opening ceremony in Johannesburg. Bringing along Dudu's younger sister Beatrice (Sanyu Joanita Kintu), the trio wind up catching the wrong bus and landing in Congo. From there, it's an eventful and often dangerous trek through seven countries - with Foreman George (Yves Dusenge) and Celeste (Sherrie Silver) joining the gang - to reach their destination.
Gardner-Paterson's film uses football as a device to examine the state of Africa. Poverty, HIV and crime all figure in the plot, and that's admirable for a movie targeted squarely at the family market. It's also never in danger of becoming an "issues" movie, instead putting its protagonists front-and-centre of the adventure. It's further worth noting how great the stop-motion animated interstitial sequences are, adding a touch of the fantastical - as Dudu's imagination runs wild, Gardner-Paterson quirkily illustrates these thoughts in a style that's similar to Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox.
Africa United has found itself tagged as the new Slumdog Millionaire, and while the comparison holds true in some respects (United gets dark and scary in places), it lacks the visual energy and fine all-round performances of Danny Boyle's Oscars juggernaut. None of the central cast have acting experience, so they're rough around the edges and struggle to deliver naturalistic turns, instead relying on their personalities to carry them through. Only Dusenge, as the tortured former soldier, tunes into something completely believable. Ndayambaje plays Dudu as a kind of pint-sized Del Boy always on the lookout for a money-making scheme - it's a testament to the film that despite his awkward line delivery, he's still an engaging and watchable screen presence.
The story is heavily sentimental in places, particularly in the finale as Gardner-Paterson juxtaposes tragedy and triumph for maximum tear-jerking effect. The ease with which the group are able to push through Soccer Stadium security strains plausibility, but by the time that point arrives most will be so caught up in the moment that it won't particularly matter. In the end, though, this is a charming little family film with plenty to offer.
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