Here’s another chance to see one of the Oscar-nominated movies—this one for Best Animated Feature. But before we even start to get into this, I’d like to point out that, though it’s unrated, this is very much not a movie to take the kids to. It has cartoon nudity, cartoon sex, cartoon drug use, cartoon smoking, some cartoon violence and a good bit of cartoon language (subtitled). In other words, it’s a cartoon for adults—or pretty sophisticated and worldly children, I suppose. I can see why it didn’t beat Rango, but I’d certainly rate it considerably above Puss in Boots and Kung Fu Panda 2.
The film is a collaborative effort between director Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoque), designer Javier Marsical and relative newcomer Tono Errando. It tells the story of Chico Valdés (voiced by Eman Xor Oña) and Rita Martinez (voiced by Limara Menesis, sung by Idania Valdés), who meet in Havana in 1948. The story follows—in nonlinear fashion—their lives for a period of roughly 60 years. It’s loosely based—very loosely based—on Bebo Valdés, the 94-year-old jazz musician who performed Chico’s piano parts, and who also wrote new music for the film. What is (and isn’t) authentic about the story is largely inessential, since the film never purports to be a biopic. It does, however, help establish Chico & Rita‘s musical credentials. This is, after all, a film that incorporates such real-life figures as Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo, Charlie Parker, et al.
Some of the historical characters are only seen in passing, though often have pivotal roles in the lives of our leads. Chano Pozo, on the other hand, is brought in for an extended and more directly dramatic sequence. The movie places Chico and his manager Ramón (voiced by Mario Guerra) on the scene of Pozo’s death in a barroom fight over the quality of the marijuana (presented in the film as oregano palmed off as pot) he’d purchased from the man who shot him. It actually gives the film one of its strongest scenes.
The overall story is played out through the frequently thwarted romance of Chico and Rita. I’m a little astonished by the reviewers who have painted this as the result of Chico cheating on Rita, because that never actually happens in the strict sense. It’s always through some kind of misunderstanding, near-miss meeting or extraneous circumstances. In fact, it reminded me of any number of Hollywood musicals where the lovers keep being estranged through circumstances that verge on the absurd—and I think this is deliberate. (There’s even a Hollywood dream sequence that suggests as much.) Even though the movie wants you to care about the main characters—and largely succeeds—it’s more interested in painting a picture of the fusion of the Cuban music scene and American jazz that was taking place in 1940s and 1950s, and, to a lesser extent, jazz falling out of favor with the Castro government. It is this regard that Chico & Rita really scores.
The animation and drawing style is not one I would normally care for all that much, but it’s one that seems peculiarly suited to the film’s neon-fueled world of old Havana, New York, Paris, Las Vegas and the overall jazz scene of the era. The images and the music—and for that matter the story—seem to belong together to create the vibrant whole of the film. No, it’s not quite perfect. There are a few clunky stretches and the business of keeping the two lovers separated—and in the dark about each others’ lives—eventually begins to feel a little forced and predictable. It keeps the film from entirely working, but it doesn’t keep it from being very good indeed. Not Rated, but definitely not for children