This past weekend, inspired by a great review in The New York Times, I went to see the animated movie "Chico and Rita". A full length feature set against the Cuban music scene of the late 1940s and 50s, the film is a love story not only of its two protagonists but also to Havana, Cuban jazz, and creative film-making.
Directed by Fernando Trueba, the filmmaker responsible for the cult Cuban jazz documentary “Calle 54”, and designed by Javier Mariscal, a Spanish graphic artist and designer, the film is so true to life that at first you wonder why it wasn’t simply made as live action. An early car chase scene is so realistically done you actually find yourself flinching, but the quirky hand-drawn animation quickly wins you over.
The music, combining Cuban jazz standards with new compositions by the great pianist and composer, Bebo Valdes, sticks with you long after the film is over – as does the sultry sexiness of the animated Rita – who gives Jessica Rabbit a run for her money (while displaying the full frontal nudity which is really the only reason the movie would not be child-appropriate).
While the film moves as far afield as New York and Las Vegas, the other star is the exquisitely rendered and vibrantly colored Havana. The filmmakers spent several months shooting on location in Havana, and their attention to detail produces a feeling that is both realistic and seductive. I can’t wait to visit Cuba.
While foremost a love story, the film doesn’t sugar-coat the place and time. Chico and Rita, both black Cubans, have to deal with discrimination and exploitation as they work their way up the commercial ladder and without giving anything anyway, their story is bittersweet.
Most surprising of all, though, “Chico & Rita,” has been nominated for an Academy Award as best animated feature – usually the sole province of family oriented fare. In a film year generally acknowledged as one of the most lackluster, it will be interesting to see if “The Artist” and “Chico and Rita” show that breaking out of the box sometimes gets you to the Oscar stage.