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Queen of Katwe Blu-ray + Digital HD Review

Queen of Katwe (2016) movie poster Queen of Katwe

Theatrical Release: September 23, 2016 / Running Time: 124 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Mira Nair / Writers: William Wheeler (screenplay); Tim Crothers (book)

Cast: Madina Nalwanga (Phiona Mutesi), David Oyelowo (Robert Katende), Lupita Nyong'o (Nakku Harriet), Martin Kabanza (Mugabi Brian), Taryn "Kay" Kyaze (Margaret Night Nantongo), Ivan Jacobo (Young Buyinza Richard), Nicolas Levesque (Older Buyinza Richard), Ronald Ssemaganda (Ivan), Ethan Nazario Lubega (Mukumbya Benjamin), Nikita Waligwa (Gloria Nansubuga), Edgar Kanyike (Joseph), Esther Tebandeke (Sarah Katende), Hope Katende (Herself), Philip Luswata (Minister Aloysius Kyazze), Peter Odeke (Enoch Barumba), Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine (Tendo), Joanitta Bewulira-Wandera (Mrs. Gali), Babirye Stellah (Chess Pioneer)

Buy Queen of Katwe from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + Digital HD DVD Instant Video

Few people would consider chess a sport, but Queen of Katwe is definitely a Disney sports movie nonetheless.
It is an ESPN Films production, having hailed from a book published by the cable sports network. It's also a true drama intended to inspire and a modestly-budgeted off-season release with no franchise and merchandising prospects. Disney doesn't make a lot of live-action movies in house these days, but around one in three of them employs the sports movie mold that Katwe relies on.

Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) lives in the slums of Katwe, Uganda, one of three children of young, hardworking widow Harriet (12 Years a Slave Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o). Even among the impoverished youths of her neighborhood, Phiona stands out for the way she smells. She timidly drifts into a chess program run by out-of-work do-gooder Robert Katende (Selma's David Oyelowo) and does not back down amidst the insults slung in her direction.

Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) becomes the pride of Katwe for her chess-playing abilities in Disney's "Queen of Katwe."

As you can predict, Phiona has a gift for the game that has her beating most of her peers. It's not natural God-given talent; she thinks a lot about the game and spends a lot of time playing it with Robert's group. The persistent Robert raises the funds need to enter the kids into a tournament held at King's College Budo, opening the children's eyes to the comforts of higher education while striking them as something from another planet.

As you also might expect, Harriet isn't sold on the idea of her daughter playing chess. The mother gets by on hard work selling food in a marketplace and she expects her daughter to follow in her footsteps. Harriet's elder daughter has run off with a guy and seemingly strolled into a life of prostitution. Knowing she can hardly afford the rent on their modest home, Harriet doesn't want to fill Phiona's mind with hopes of a better life she cannot give her. But the more air travel, trophies, and tasty food and drink Phiona experiences, the more she wants to succeed to the level of grandmaster.

Katwe is directed by Mira Nair, a respected and seasoned Indian filmmaker whose credits include Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake. She is a bigger talent than Disney usually recruits to helm their sports movies, but the results aren't terribly different, as the film still falls into the "good, but not quite great" zone it shares with most of the class.

Phiona's hardworking mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o) doesn't see the value in Phiona pursuing competitive chess.

Katwe doesn't have any huge surprises up its sleeve to justify running just over two hours and feeling even longer.
Part of you hopes the film will avoid relying on the one big match climax that is essentially inevitable in the world of sports movies. It does not avoid that trope, but at least it keeps it brief with the conclusion of a scene established at the very start.

Scripted by William Wheeler (The Hoax, The Reluctant Fundamentalist), Queen of Katwe is a film that no one will dislike. About the closest reaction to that imaginable would be a student resisting being forced to watch it by an overzealous teacher they don't like. It's not as if chess or African culture are overrepresented in American film. This may lack the visceral impact of something like Slumdog Millionaire, but its depictions of such a different way of contemporary living still intrigue and compel.

Despite near-universal acclaim from critics (92% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes both by Top Critics and All Critics) and an A+ CinemaScore from moviegoers, Queen of Katwe failed to find an audience in its fall theatrical run, grossing just under $9 million domestically and just over $1 million from the few other territories in which Disney or another studio released it. The film hits Blu-ray and DVD this week in separate editions, the former of which includes Digital HD.

Queen of Katwe: Blu-ray + Digital HD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.40:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish), Dolby Surround 2.0 (Descriptive Video Service)
Subtitles: English, English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: January 31, 2017
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on DVD ($29.99 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Reflecting its setting, Queen of Katwe is a colorful film, whose vivid colors delight in the Blu-ray's pleasing 2.40:1 transfer. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack does a first rate job of distributing dialogue, music, and some ambient noise.

Director Mira Nair speaks both in an audio commentary and the three-part making-of documentary "Queen of Katwe: Their Story." The real Susan and Robert Katende speak in the bonus short "A Fork, A Spoon & A Knight."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray's extras begin with "Queen of Katwe: Their Story" (29:39),
a three-part making-of documentary. It explores the setting of Uganda and its fashions and cultures, the actors, and the real people whose stories are being told.

Next up, we get a feature audio commentary by director Mira Nair. She fills the air and speaks with passion and specificity, but two hours is a long time to spend listening about a film you may not feel that strongly about.

"A Fork, A Spoon & A Knight" (13:14) profiles the real Robert Katende, with an interview of him (subtitled to clarify his accent), looks at his chess teaching program, and recreations of his childhood experiences. Made just before Queen of Katwe, it is something of a short film on its own right, crediting Nair and Zippy Kimundu as its writer-directors.

Alicia Keys finds the sound of "Back to Life" in the studio. HAB and Young Cardamom rap about "#1 Spice" in a fun music video that is also excerpted in the end credits.

Under the heading Music, we find three things.

"In the Studio with Alicia Keys" (6:26) finds the musician at work on "Back to Life", the song she wrote and performed for the movie. She talks about the song's meaning and importance.

A lyric video for "Back to Life" (5:01) follows. It places the lyrics over stills from the film it animates.

Finally, as seen deep into the end credits, we get the music video Young Cardamom & HAB's "#1 Spice" (3:55). Getting substantial appearances out of the film's cast,
it's a pretty terrific video for a fun song, written for the movie and teased within, whose foreign lyrics are occasionally translated into English. Fun fact: Young Cardamom's mom is director Mira Nair.

A deleted scenes section holds eight scenes, which are individually and collectively introduced by director Mira Nair (20:25). They include Robert's graduation, Phiona's dance crew, Robert with sports coaching duty,

The disc opens with trailers for the forthcoming Beauty and the Beast and Moana. The Sneak Peeks listing plays a trailer for Disneynature's Born in China before repeating the other two.

The scored main menu cycles through some subtly animated film stills.

An insert advertising the Disney Movie Club and another supplying your Disney Movies Anywhere/Rewards code accompany the plain blue disc inside the slipcovered, side-snapped keepcase.

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) gets her first look at the clouds from an airplane she rides alongside her coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo).

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Queen of Katwe is a well-made and absorbing drama, but one that moviegoers unfortunately took little interest in. It does not do much to shake up sports movie formulas, but doesn't need to either because this is different enough from most "sports movies."

Disney's Blu-ray supplies a fine feature presentation plus substantial extras. While the film probably doesn't have a ton of replay value, this is a satisfactory release for those who intend to rewatch it often.

Buy Queen of Katwe from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + Digital HD / DVD / Instant Video

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Reviewed January 31, 2017.



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