Chico & Rita showcases the bolder side of animation

By Jeff Mitchell

Courtesy of The Leighton Buzzard

In a world where Pixar and DreamWorks dominate kid-friendly cinema, animated movies are sometimes not taken seriously. “Chico & Rita” challenges this norm – creating an animated film for adult audiences that hits on multiple levels through its seductive portrayal of love and music in the mid-20th century.

“Chico & Rita” is the story of a young brash piano player, Chico, and a sultry singer, Rita, set in 1948 Cuba. The two cross paths and are linked by a desire of music and a love for one another. The two’s heated romance takes them from the streets of Havana to the avenues of New York as they have to deal with cultural change that aims to pull them apart.

First off, this film has no celebrity voice actors. This is a very good idea because a majority of the film is subtitled when the characters speak in Spanish. This is not overwhelming because the movie does not rely heavily on conversation as music and body language follow suit.

The animation is different from the expected animated film. It does not have the CGI appearance of many newer films, but the art style is definitely welcomed. The character styles are simple and not overbearing, for example Rita’s solid yellow dress. This is nice, but also hurts the movie when conveying emotion in the faces, which becomes difficult due to the lack of detail. In such a human story, faces and eyes are extremely important subtle features and sometimes they do seem ambiguous.

The scene’s art style changes at certain points to convey different story elements. This stylistic choice keeps the audience excited and utilizes the medium of animation to convey these different emotions. The environment of the film is beautifully constructed. The setting is seeped in cultural nuances from the billboards and streets of Havana to the skyscrapers of New York. Nearly all the scenes have this form of depth that immerses the viewer into a lifestyle that compliments the music and the characters.

Lighting in the film adds a great deal of richness to the animation. This acts a way in which depth is added to the simple animation and creates layered settings. The story itself is changed by lighting. You feel engrossed in the dim blue lighting of a New York jazz club or the bright hue of the sun-drenched Havana streets.

Camera pans create a whole new element to the animation. It removes any static feel from scenes and also sets vistas of Havana and New York.
The music is at the core of this film. Music connects the characters through love, and acts as a vehicle for social progression. The original soundtrack, composed by Bebo Valdés, really acts as a backbone for the film’s story. Almost every scene contains some musical accompaniment that interweaves a jazzy undertone into the fiber of the film.

While music and history are important parts to the movie, at its heart it is a love story. Chico and Rita both fall in and out of love throughout their journey for musical success. The film also has a good humorous side to it whether they are wildly speeding down New York streets or being duped into purchasing oregano thinking that it’s marijuana.

The two characters complement each other well, but the story does tend to lull at times. Sometimes it appears that the characters are not well-developed enough to keep you interested throughout the whole film, and it gets confusing whether the couple is in or out of love at certain times.

The subject matter of the film alone separates it from the cliché of light hearted animated films. From drinking and drugs to sexuality, “Chico & Rita” strives to develop a rich, honest story instead of just appealing to children. This content is very important to the story, as it is a love story, but not overdone or sensationalist. The purpose is there and is done tastefully. This film is not crude by any means, but it definitely is not as clean as the stereotypical film.

This film was a nominee for best animated film at this year’s Academy Awards, but lost to Nickelodeon’s “Rango” starring Johnny Depp.

What does it say about our film culture and the way in which animated films are perceived when a movie about a chameleon in the desert beats a story of love and human growth from Cuba to New York?

Jeff Mitchell can be reached at [email protected]