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A young girl named Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) lives selling corn on the streets of rural Uganda. Her world is rapidly changed when she is introduced to the game of chess by a missionary named Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). As a result of the support she receives from her family and community, she is instilled with the confidence and determination she needs to pursue her dream of becoming an international chess champion. (From Disney’s official synopsis)

 Queen of Katwe
I find it all too easy to unilaterally ignore underdog movies due to their devotion narrative formulas. The die was cast by sports movies of the ‘30s/’40s, like Lloyd Bacon’s Knute Rockne, All American (1940), then revisited by 1970s mega-hits, like John G. Avildsen’s Rocky (1976), before being cemented by ‘80s/’90s feelgood favourites, like David Anspaugh’s Hoosiers (1986). I can consider this adherence to outmoded blueprints a creative shortcoming, because it often is. However, putting aside possible genre exhaustion, people like myself must also admit that formulas of any kind are a necessity when it comes popular entertainment and, when properly utilized, these rehashed recipes can usher unique points of view into the mainstream. When broken down to its basic storytelling essence, Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe (2016) isn’t unlike, say, Gavin O'Connor’s Miracle (2004), despite the two films recounting the events of very different real-world events. When done well, underdog movies draw compelling parallels between disparate cultures. A Ugandan girl’s rise through the ranks of chess masters can be every bit as relatable as a ragtag American hockey team’s unexpected gold medal win when their stories are contextualized using the same tropes. With the parallels established, the heartbreaking differences can carry more weight. It’s no mistake, then, that Queen of Katwe’s most touching moments are the ones that dwell on the real hardships of living in Uganda.

Separated from the merits and disadvantages of its formulaic story, Nair’s specific strengths as a filmmaker are evident throughout Queen of Katwe. I think it’s fair to say that her best movies – Mississippi Masala (1991), Monsoon Wedding (2001), et cetera – take typified genre material and elevates it with colourful photography and believable, emotional performances. Her unique visual sense suitably celebrates the colourful and eclectic nature of the Ugandan/South African locations, but she’s also careful not to lose the film’s humanity in the flashy images. The balance is negatively shifted, however, the many times she and editor Barry Alexander Brown overcut otherwise static sequences. This energetic editing can work well for the chess scenes, where it offers an impressionistic approach to what could be a boring visual, but turns simple one-on-one discussions into a soup of close-ups, wide-shots, and alternate angles. Eyelines and continuity are sometimes muddled in the process. In terms of performance, the supporting cast here is hemmed in a bit by the formula, which requires them to act as plot devices who spout platitudes at the main character. But the calibre of the cast helps to soften the rigidity of the dialogue/characterizations and the whole thing hinges on a refreshingly natural turn from first-time actress, Madina Nalwanga.

 Queen of Katwe

Video


Queen of Katwe was obviously shot with digital HD cameras (probably Arri Alexa, based upon their use during other Nair movies) and is presented here in 2.40:1, 1080p video. The overall look is an attractive mix of rich, busy textures, eerily smooth gradations (as only digital photography can reproduce), and aggressive, though attractive, colour-correction. The tight details are stretched and softened from front to back, depending on cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s precise focal choices. There’s very little in terms of compression artefacts, aside from slight blocking in dark, warm shapes, which makes for some breathtakingly complex wide-angle images. The bulk of the movie takes place in Uganda, where the basic palette is a homogenized blend of oranges, yellows, and reds. Here, cooler colours tend to act as highlights, especially teal/light blue, and they pop nicely without bleeding (the warm hues are quite vivid, too, of course). Other locations, such as the freezing tundras of Russia, are cooler and more desaturated. That said, the whole movie, including the prevalent sun-baked shots, has a vaguely gloomy overcast to its tones, which does leave the dimly-lit sequences quite dark. Mixed with the super high contrast levels, this leaves some black levels blobbed-up and pooled.

Audio


Queen of Katwe is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. Though much of the story is driven by dialogue (most of it English), the mix is rarely flat. Exteriors are teeming with multi-directional crowd noise and the comparatively quiet interior sequences feature a softer, warmer brand of immersion. Alex Heffes’ symphonic score is pretty traditional at its core, brimming with feel-good string cues, but is made more flashy with an influx of tribal drums, choral vocals, and other traditional African elements. In addition, there’s quite a bit of area-appropriate pop/dance music that is used to set the tone. The score tends to be split between the moments where it is the predominant sound and moments where it is softened considerably to make way for dialogue.

 Queen of Katwe

Extras


  • Commentary with director Mira Nair – This solo track is extensively prepped by the director, who rarely pauses while guiding us through the movie and the true story. The director balances screen-specific discussion with production anecdotes and cultural context.
  • Eight deleted scenes with introductions by Nair (20:25, HD)
  • Queen of Katwe: Their Story (29:39, HD) – A three-part behind-the-scenes documentary that covers the early production, Nair’s direction, the difficulties and advantages of filming on location, the cast, the real people that they are playing, and the continuing efforts of those real people.
  • A Fork, a Spoon & a Knight (13:14, HD) – Nair’s short docudrama about the real Robert Katende, who set up the chess program portrayed in the movie and discovered Phiona.
  • Music:
    • In the Studio With Alicia Keys (6:26, HD) – Behind-the-scenes with the artist as she records “Back to Life.”
    • “Back To Life” music video with on-screen lyrics (5:01, HD)


 Queen of Katwe

Overall


Queen of Katwe is a well-made (though over-edited) movie that breathes a bit of life into the very tired underdog formula with likable performances, attractive photography, and an intimate look at cultural hardships that aren’t usually discussed in mainstream Hollywood cinema. Disney’s Blu-ray is quite colorful and dynamic with a busy, yet subtle DTS-HD MA soundtrack and a relatively informative collection of extras.

 Queen of Katwe

 Queen of Katwe
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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