“Chico and Rita” is one of the finest animated films to come out in the last decade and the first Spanish-language animated film to be nominated for the for Best Animated Picture at The Oscars in the history of the award. Unlike most animated pictures that were nominated this year, “Chico and Rita” is most definitely aimed at adults and features the sometimes-tragic story of two lovers inextricably tied together through the power of music.
The film begins with an aged shoeshiner named Chico walking through the dusty streets of modern day Havana, but we are quickly transported into the past as he strolls down memory lane. His flashbacks begin in Havana in the late 1940s, where he is a skilled and ambitious jazz pianist. At a nightclub, he happens to meet Rita, a voluptuous and dynamic singer, and they soon begin a passionate but seemingly doomed love affair that takes us from Havana to New York, to Hollywood, to Las Vegas and to Paris.
As compelling as this roller coaster romance is, it is the music and the history that really make this film stand out. As these star-crossed lovers travel the globe, we are treated to a front row seat to the development of post-war jazz music, particularly the contributions of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Chano Pozo. From the airy courtyards of Havana to the dark basement clubs of New York and to the glitzy hotels of Las Vegas, the music seems to be a central character that drives the film’s narrative and binds the characters together.
The film employs an uncomplicated but incredibly evocative animation style that makes heavy use of color blocks and thick fluid lines, which complement the free-flowing nature of the film’s soundtrack. Unlike so many of the animated films that Hollywood churns out every year, “Chico and Rita” is animated using almost exclusively hand-drawn animation techniques, and that adds to the personal nature of the film. From the busy and bustling cityscapes to the most intimate moments of Chico and Rita’s love affair, the understated animation style paints us a picture that is both vibrant and nostalgic.
This film also shines when it comes to its uncompromising and surprisingly accurate approach to the history of discrimination, racism and corruption that pervaded post-war show business. Towards the end of the film, we also see the challenges that the Cuban revolution posed for musicians and artists and the toll it took on our main characters.
Directed by Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal, this film heavily features the music of 93-year-old Cuban pianist and composer Bebo Valdés, who, much like the character of Chico, was living in relative obscurity in Europe before he was rediscovered and reintroduced to a modern audience by Trueba in his documentary, “Calle 54.” Valdés performs most of the original songs for the film, but it also features the music of some of the most talented performers of the era, such as Thelonious Monk, Cole Porter and Gillespie. From beginning to end, “Chico and Rita” is a real audience-pleaser that will make you fall in love with Latin jazz just as much as its title characters fell for each other.