Any traditionally animated film released these days seems automatically to carry with it a sort of simplistic reverie rooted in our inherent nostalgia for its form. Since the 1995 release of Toy Story, the rise of digital animation to the foreground of cinema has marginalised the delights of the hand-crafted imperfection of the cartoon. Almost 20 years later, it seems that traditional animation is once more gathering a larger presence; consider Disney’s spellbinding The Princess and the Frog, the first new cartoon in five years from a company who once produced them annually. As the films nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar since its 2001 inception attest, however, the resurgence in traditional animation has been born mostly from foreign countries, whose digital output has been far less prominent; indeed, of the nine non-American nominees in the category’s history, all but one have been cartoons (interestingly, the exception was a stop-motion animation).
Any traditionally animated film released these days seems automatically to carry with it a sort of simplistic reverie rooted in our inherent nostalgia for its form.
One of two traditionally animated features nominated at this year’s Academy Awards, Chico & Rita is a love story following the uneasy union between its titular characters, set at the beginning of the Afro-Cuban jazz scene in New York in the late 1940s. Wearied from a day of work, an old man climbs the stairs to his apartment. It is small, humble, sparsely furnished, neither dirty nor particularly clean. He twists the radio dial, skipping through news reports in search of the soothing sounds of jazz, smiles, and pours himself two glasses with resignation. The radio announcer introduces a song written sixty years ago, performed by Chico & Rita. The elderly Chico plays out the chords on his windowsill as he gazes over the city beyond, becoming lost in a haze of memories: his meeting Rita in a club in Havana; their first passionate night together; their finding fame as a duo in New York.
There is a lamentative air to Chico & Rita’s opening scene, a sad sense of rue and regret as the old man begins his reminiscing. It introduces perfectly the bittersweet register of the film, going from scenes of comical romance infused with the melodic energy of the couple’s music to the less happy moments of seething frustration and latent discontent close relationships breed. The perfection of the young lovers’ first morning after waking in the same bed is undercut by the arrival of another woman claiming to be Chico’s girlfriend; this is no tale of unblemished romanticism and unending mutual adoration. It is more a story of the idiosyncrasy of human emotion, the manner in which that which we truly desire is kept from us by nothing other than our own shortcomings as people. It is a testament to the burning fire of romance that all too often is as destructive as it is illuminating, as dangerous as it is exhilarating. For much of the film, in fact, its characters are apart from one another; what is “meant to be” is kept from ever happening by the human flaws of those involved, be it their stubbornness, their pride, or that inclination within us all that seems driven to destroy the good things in life we manage to make for ourselves.
It introduces perfectly the bittersweet register of the film, going from scenes of comical romance infused with the melodic energy of the couple’s music to the less happy moments of seething frustration and latent discontent close relationships breed.
Chico & Rita is an immensely sexual film, drawing much of its atmosphere from the raw eroticism of the vivacious music it celebrates. Chico’s fingers sweep the keys of his piano in much the same way that he caresses Rita’s naked body; a number of post-coital scenes feature their unclothed forms embracing as the passionate music surrounds them. The raw lust of the central characters’ love is juxtaposed with the ardency of the musical culture of which they are so integral a part. This is a jubilant exultation of the uniting power of music, conveyed through an often bitterly realistic love story of characters kept apart by their own inadequacies. However torn their relationship might be by their personal failures, it is in the rapturous liveliness of the music that they are reunited, in the blazing fervour of their culture that their love is rekindled. It’s a warming celebration of Cuban identity and the power of shared heritage—be it national, musical, whatever—to bring us together and forget the hurt we have done each other.
Working with the designer Javier Mariscal, director Fernando Trueba lovingly recreates the world of 1940s Havana and New York, rendering the cities in all the visually delightful and intricately detailed animation they deserve as thriving cultural metropolises. Each frame is extravagantly composed, the smallest of background elements given incredible attention that brings these settings to a colourful life, supplementing the vivacity of the music and the richness of the Cuban culture. In a breath-taking transitory scene following Chico from Havana to New York, the animation takes a formic departure, becoming a more loose and expressive visual feast. The sequence is a dazzling combination of cineliteracy—referencing On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain, even Casablanca—and technical mastery. A sort of ocular explosion of Chico’s internal desires, it becomes one of the film’s most memorable scenes, matching even the marvellous wonder of the love story’s roller-coaster trajectory.
Visually captivating and emotionally enchanting, Chico & Rita is a beautifully real love story that laments humankind’s remarkable ability to let the better things in life escape. A vibrant celebration of the power of music and the way it can bring us together, its pristine animation breaths a contagious lease of life into a story of heartbreak and happiness, of bad times and good. A treat to both the eyes and the heartstrings, it is a sensuous tribute to human passion, in all its beauty and ugliness.
[notification type=”star”]77/100 ~ GOOD. Visually captivating and emotionally enchanting, Chico & Rita is a beautifully real love story that laments humankind’s remarkable ability to let the better things in life escape.[/notification]