By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Mar. 16, 2012
Like a lot of you, I went, "Huh?" when the films "Chico & Rita" and "A Cat in Paris" popped up among the nominees for best animated feature during this year's Oscars telecast, along with "Kung Fu Panda 2," "Puss in Boots" and "Rango."
Who'd ever heard of - let alone seen - these films, which don't boast any big Hollywood names and which are, respectively, in Spanish and French?
As it turns out, "Chico & Rita," at least, is a pure delight, a keenly affecting, visually ravishing tale.
It also hardly seems to belong in the same category as the other, more kid-friendly fare. Yes, it's animated -- in a refreshingly old-fashioned hand-drawn style -- but it's anything but a children's cartoon.
The bittersweet romance about Chico, a Cuban piano player, and Rita, a singer who becomes his love, is told over nearly 50 years, and features sex, drugs and gun violence, along with an original jazz score by the great Cuban pianist and composer Bebo Valdes.
It's more grown up than a lot of the live-action films at the Oscars.
Told mainly in flashback, through the memories of Chico, the film opens on a lonely old man in a seedy one-room apartment in Havana, but quickly jumps backward in time to 1948 and the first meeting between Chico (Eman Xor Ona) and Rita (Limara Meneses).
Their union is at first an artistic collaboration - he needs a vocalist for a music competition he's entered - but it quickly heats up. The attraction is strong and mutual, not to mention powerfully erotic, especially for a cartoon. But personal and professional jealousies intervene as the story moves forward, and as its protagonists' advancing careers take them from Cuba to New York, Paris and Las Vegas, swept up by forces that alternately throw them together and keep them apart.
Each city is stunningly evoked by directors Tono Errando, Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba, who tell their story largely through visuals and music, not dialogue. A subtext of race -- the Chico and Rita are both black, and the story mainly takes place in an era when that meant second-class citizen -- lends the film a somber grounding in reality.
"Chico & Rita" is so deeply involving, it's sometimes easy to forget that it's animated.
There's no talking cowboy-lizard here, no panda practicing martial arts and no swashbuckling cat. "Chico & Rita" takes a medium that sometimes seems to have been co-opted by characters that can't be brought to life any other way and reminds us that it is the story, not stunts, that breathes life into a cartoon.
Contains obscenity, gun violence, nudity and sex. In Spanish and some English with English subtitles.