Cuba, 1948. Chico is a young piano player with big dreams. Rita is a beautiful singer with an extraordinary voice. Music and romantic desire unites them, but their journey -- in the tradition of the Latin ballad, the bolero -- brings heartache and torment. From Havana to New York, Paris, Hollywood and Las Vegas, two passionate individuals battle impossible odds to unite in music and love.
Chico & Rita is the animated story of a talented pianist named Chico (voiced by Eman Xor Ona) and a lovely singer named Rita (Limara Meneses). Chico is smitten with Rita right from the start when they meet one night in a club in Havana, Cuba where Rita is singing. He follows her to another club, where he is pulled onstage to fill in for the band's piano player, showing Rita that he is an amazing musician. They spend the rest of the evening sitting at a piano in an empty bar, and the two become partners, both in music and love. The pairing proves to be tumultuous, and the two drift in and out of each other's lives for years, Rita becoming a famous singer and actress while Chico makes a career for himself as a touring jazzman. The story takes Chico and Rita from Havana to New York, follows Rita to Hollywood while Chico goes to Europe, and finally sees both of them in Las Vegas, chasing each other and their dreams.
Chico & Rita functions on two levels. Not only is it a tale of two star-crossed lovers and their attempts to balance their feelings for one another with their hopes and dreams, but the story of Chico and Rita also serves as a good lesson in jazz history, with several legendary musicians making appearances. Written by Fernando Trueba (The Age of Beauty) and Ignacio MartÃ¬nez de Pison (Backroads) and directed by Trueba and the brothers Tono Errando and Javier Mariscal, the story is an atypical love story set against the backdrop of the 1940's emerging Cuban music scene that spilled over into American Jazz. It's sweet without being sappy and the whole film is very cinematic for a cartoon. The animation uses cinematography tricks that make the movie slicker and better done than much more elaborate animated features.
The characters of Chico and Rita are maddening. The two are so headstrong and stubborn that it comes as no surprise that their relationship is volatile, and the misunderstandings and lack of communication keep plenty of drama in the story. Chico & Rita does not have a concrete antagonist, but it doesn't need one. The film's conflict arises between the two main characters and that energy is enough to move the story along just fine. Both Chico and Rita are likable characters and the audience gets emotionally invested in them, so when Rita argues with a big-time manager who wants her to come to New York without Chico, and Chico thinks she is flirting with the man and storms out, the viewer just wants to intervene and explain to Chico that Rita is actually defending him. Similarly, when Rita tells Chico that she never wants to see him again, the audience wants to explain to him that she doesn't mean it and she wants him to fight for her. It's these types of situations that make Chico & Rita such a fun movie to watch - it's obvious that the couple has chemistry and belongs together, but it doesn't come easy. Still, the audience roots for Chico and Rita, knowing that they are in love and seeing that, no matter how much success each has on their own, they are much happier together. As a love story, Chico & Rita works much better than the run-of-the-mill Hollywood romances because of the tragic flaws in the characters.
More than anything else, Chico & Rita is a musical, and the music is top-notch. The original score was written by five-time Grammy winning Cuban pianist Bebo Valdez, and it perfectly captures the feel of the era when Cuban music came over mixed with American jazz and bebop. The film also features classics from Dizzy Gillespie, Cole Porter, Freddy Cole and Thelonious Monk. The soundtrack is a snapshot of the post WWII era jazz scene and the film even contains animated cameos by Gillespie and Monk, along with Charlie Parker, Tito Puente and Chano Pozo. The music, as well as the movie, is a special treat for both jazz lovers and fans of Afro-Cuban music.
The animation in Chico & Rita is a nice change of pace from the usual suspects in the Disney/Pixar dominated cartoon field. The process used is an interesting one; most of the movie was shot with live actors, with the drawings done by famed illustrator Javier Mariscal and his team from the edited footage. As a result, the characters in the film have a life to them that is absent in a lot of other animations. The drawings are fairly simple line drawings, but tons of attention is paid to little aspects like shading and color that keeps the art from looking amateurish. The style is similar to the art that is found in old Saturday morning cartoons, or more recently in films like Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir, only less repetitive and more lifelike. Chico & Rita has the look of a smoothly moving comic book, and it's a very effective formula.
Mariscal's illustrations are also extremely versatile. In one scene, Chico is sleeping while on a ship headed to America and his dream is a completely different style of art, using a more simplified look and primary colors (and less of them) to let the viewer know that it's not part of the reality of the storyline. Humphrey Bogart even takes a stroll through the dream. Nothing about Mariscal's art is accidental, even in the dream sequence, and the artists take painstaking care to make every drawing perfect.
February 10, 2012