As much as I appreciate the fact that an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature was created just over ten years ago, it’s a bit disappointing to see that almost all the winners have been American films aimed at children. Yes, Pixar and Dreamworks do some wonderful work (with the former creating some of the best films ever made, animated or not), but there is so much animation done around the world that doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves in the United States. As a fan of animation, whenever a foreign film gets nominated in that category I make a note to see it. I was finally able to see Chico & Rita, which was nominated for this year’s award.
THE FILM: The Chico and Rita of the title are Cuban musicians who meet in a bar when Chico sees the gorgeous Rita singing a beautiful song in 1948 Havana. Chico, a pianist, thinks Rita is the perfect voice for his music — and while their stars align musically, romantically they cause nothing but problems for each other. Still, even separated by drama the two are destined for musical greatness, and Rita moves to New York and becomes a huge star and Chico follows, playing with some all-time jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie. However, the paths of Chico and Rita continue to cross at times that are both beneficial and damaging to their careers.
In a lot of ways, Chico & Rita is like a Cuban version of Once, a story of two performers so linked by the sheer magic of the musical collaborations between them yet fate keeps them apart romantically. That’s not to say it hits as hard as Once, especially since Chico & Rita balances the drama with homages to the technicolor musicals of the 1940s and 1950s era to lighten the tone. As a result, it’s a bit more predictable than a movie like Once, though that certainly doesn’t hurt the movie. Cuban jazz isn’t Irish folk, and so the films ought to have different pulses and different outcomes.
The hand-drawn animation is also wonderfully designed and really fits the film’s narrative. However, it does have a different “flow” than American animation, which takes a bit of adjusting to. But by the time the film takes the characters to the fast-paced streets of New York City it’s easy to see why this film was animated rather than shot in live action. In fact, a dream sequence animated in the style of old-fashioned neon lighting (the kind that lit up Times Square in the late 1940s) is one of the best animated bits I’ve seen in a while, particularly in its very clever nod to Casablanca.
At a succinct 94 minutes, directors Tono Errando, Javier Mariscal, and Fernando Trueba (Trueba also co-wrote the film with Ignacio Martínez de Pisón) keep the film flowing with the beat of the music. Anyone with an appreciation for jazz will enjoy this film, and those who don’t will still get sucked in by the love story, as predictable as it is.
EXTRAS: The three-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack comes with a number of features:
Making of Chico & Rita: a twenty-eight minute look at the creation of the film that reveals how it was produced, focusing extensively on rotoscoping (much of the film was shot in live action and animators followed the footage) and the creation of the film’s soundtrack. In particular, the parts which focus on the contributions of nonagenarian Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés to the film (Valdés played on much of the soundtrack and served as the visual model for the older Chico) and the very cool touch of having Freddy Cole sing for the voice of his deceased brother Nat King Cole. In fact, the parts about the animation become overshadowed by the parts focusing on the recording of the film’s soundtrack, but that makes sense considering how important music is to this film.
Commentary with Directors Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal: Now this is interesting. Directors Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal are not native English speakers (which they apologize for in the opening moments of the commentary), but that doesn’t mean this commentary track is hard to follow. Yes, there are moments where it seems neither man knows what to say (falling into that awful commentary pratfall in which the commentators start explaining what is happening instead of why or how it was created), but they do point out a lot of neat animated bits that escaped my peripheral vision. They also comment a lot on the designs for the characters and backgrounds, which shows how much work went into the visual design of the film.
U.S. Trailer: Well, it’s a trailer. You know what you get here.
Pack-Ins: The set is also packaged with a 16 page excerpt of the graphic novel that was adapted from the film and a soundtrack disc of the film’s wonderful music. One thing about the soundtrack that is important to note (it’s mentioned in the making of feature) that though the movie’s soundtrack features songs by legendary musicians like Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Cole Porter, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, Tito Puente, and Chano Pozo, these are NOT original recordings: contemporary musicians were asked to play in the “style” of these greats to create a soundtrack that would fit the film. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth pointing out if you’re thinking you’re going to get a soundtrack of vintage recordings.
Movie Rating: Though you know what’s going to happen, the beautiful designs and wonderful music keeps you watching for the entire film (8/10).
Blu-ray Rating: Language barrier aside, the extras convey how much work was put into this project by the crew and make the three disc set (with the soundtrack) an attractive package (7/10).
Chico & Rita will be released as a DVD and Blu-ray/DVD combo pack on September 18 by GKIDS and Cinedigm