By Erik McClanahan | The Playlist February 7, 2012 at 10:56AM
“Chico & Rita,” a now Oscar-nominated animated co-production from Spain and the U.K., is a film for which “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” simply doesn’t suffice. We certainly endorse its nomination in the often drab, studio-laden Best Animated Feature category, where Pixar often deservedly runs away with the statue, and has the last four years in a row (but not this year as “Cars 2” was thankfully snubbed). But we can’t in good conscience admit to outright loving the film, much as it seems to be tailor-made for The Playlist, with music – Cuban jazz, specifically – being its crux.
Things begin in the most perfunctory of ways as Chico, an old man living in Cuba, is walking home after another day of shining shoes. He feels alienated amidst the young men jamming around a boom box, and shuffles home. He turns on the radio and the DJ explains the next song as a classic from 50 years ago, which causes Chico to dig up some old photos and do some reminiscing. Turns out, back in 1940s and 50s Havana, Chico was once a hot piano player and gifted songwriter. And even more, he once had a great love in Rita, a fiery, gorgeous woman with the voice of an angel.
The film mostly stays in the past, with the occasional present day scene popping up every now and then. This structure adds very little to the film. Even though a grand arc is resolved through this method, the insistence on using this trite flashback storytelling device leaves much to be desired. After all, if you’re using jazz as a background for your story, isn’t there a more vibrant, original way to bring the audience into the narrative? Directors Tono Errando, Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba instead keep everything at a broad, biopic-like remove, insisting on speeding through a familiar structure that could’ve used more room to breath and more effervescent verve, which it lacks through most of its running time.
You know a film isn’t connecting as it should when you even have issues with the elements you like. The animation in “Chico & Rita,” a sort-of hybrid of the rotoscoping technique used so effectively in “A Scanner Darkly” crossed with the also excellent “Waltz With Bashir,” is mostly beautiful, but at times slips in to an odd, lifeless "Grand Theft Auto"-style video game aesthetic that’s less cinematic than the aforementioned titles. The music, including numbers by jazz legends Thelonious Monk, Cole Porter and Dizzy Gillespie, is of course awesome, as is the strong original soundtrack by Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés, but the many musical numbers – barring the wonderful moment when Chico discovers and meets Rita – spread throughout the narrative do little to bring to life these amazing musicians and the exciting time in which they all existed.
Yet most of these issues could be shrugged off as mere nitpicking, and the film would still work (even though this writer imagines it will for most audiences, regardless) were it not for the inconsistency of the directors’ vision. “Chico & Rita” in a way purports to be an animated love story for adults – there’s sex, nudity, violence and vulgar language – but all that “maturity” turns out to be mere window dressing in the end, as the love story is all too often akin to watching bickering teenagers. (He’s jealous of her, now she’s jealous of him!) It’s the kind of film in which the normal adult solution of talking a problem through is put aside to achieve a sense of tragedy.
The movie shows its true, cartoonish colors early on when, after meeting Rita, Chico invites her to join him and she does. As they take off on his friend’s motorcycle, and her date realizes he’s been stood up, what follows is a totally ridiculous (even for a cartoon) and seemingly out of nowhere car/motorcycle chase that ends in destruction. Indulging in this kind of nonsensical action takes precious minutes away from the leads’ romance and character development, leaving the audience with hollow spectacle that again, feels rather video gamey and loses the heart of the drama. Perhaps a better title for this movie would be "Grand Theft Auto: Havana Nights," then all the broad storytelling and references to other, much better movies (like “Casablanca”) wouldn’t be so out of place.
And we haven’t even gotten in to the depiction of women in the movie, which is at best troubling and embarrassingly generic. Females are portrayed as either ditsy, giggly arm candy at the bar or as something to have sex with and ditch just in time for them to get jealous about the next one. There’s even a scene where two women, fighting over a man of course, wrestle around on his bedroom floor while one of them is naked. This kind of “Showgirls”-esque behavior wouldn’t be out of place in a crappy "Leisure Suit Larry" game, but here it’s played straight, despite how inherently campy it is. Sure, Rita is strong willed and shown to be independent, but even she defines herself in the end, despite all her accomplishments, by the man in her life.
So in the end, this is a mere trifle of a movie, sugary and enjoyable to be sure, and we recommend it overall as such. But with so much potential squandered we can’t help but feel there’s a better film in there somewhere. In context, what’s on screen is pretty good and fresh, compared to most animated movies released every year. It’s another film for which nostalgia plays a huge part, and in this case, to its detriment. “Chico & Rita” is more interested in being old fashioned, when a more modern complexity to the relationship could have made it something truly memorable and special. We’ll take the modern version please. [C+]