When the Academy Award nominations were announced last January; in the category of Best Animated Feature a major surprise occurred: Rather than the assumed lock for Pixar's fairly underrated Cars 2, and the partial lock for Rio, two little known foreign films by the names of A Cat In Paris and Chico and Rita were nominated instead. While admittedly some thought Chico and Rita would snag a nomination (and no one could've possibly guessed the latter film, no matter how many children's film festivals they'd been to), the very existence of this Spanish export was relative news to me. A simultaneously innocent and fairly mature animated drama set in 1948, two struggling artists (named Chico and Rita of course) attempt to handle their undeniable attraction for the other, while trying to share their united love of music with the harsh, and constantly changing world around them. While this plot seemed predictable and slightly generic, I was compelled to see this film by its upset nomination, and the gorgeous visuals of a pre-revolution Cuba featured in the trailer. Seemingly this year's The Illusionist in terms of undiscovered animated gems, I wanted to be swept up in this colorful unlikely period piece the same way Chico and Rita are swept into the stunning world of 1950's NYC jazz. However, my expectations were probably far too high, as my enjoyment, or lack thereof, can largely be attributed to two aspects of the film: Impressive visuals and unbelievable storytelling.
First, the positive: This is undoubtably a beautiful film to look at. Using its clearly low budget as an incentive for creativity rather than grating drawback, triple directors Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, and Tono Errando, have constructed three unique visual landscapes in the styles of a pop-up book artist with latin flair to their work. The film opens in a modern day Cuban slum; long since faded once energetic primaries paint the streets. It's clear that this crumbled and decaying urban mess was once a thriving place of joy. With little dialogue, and even before we visit this once thriving city through flashback, just through extreme attention to detail these directors have already set a haunting overture for the film. When we eventually leave the present day, and journey to the slum 1948 circa., the once faded colors bright up the screen through sheer energy. At once, this develops an incredibly gorgeous feast for the eyes, but forces returns to the present day to be far more bleak and miserable. This contrast between the bright and the bleak color schemes also help represent Chico as a character, but more on this subject in the next paragraph. When the story lags (more on this in the next paragraph as well), these picturesque landscapes are stunning enough to excite the audience, if not tell the story narrative and dialogue attempt to compliment.
Second, the negative: My main worry going into the film was whether the seemingly predictable plot would be compelling, or drag the whole film down with it. Admittedly, claiming the seemingly sweet love story at the heart of the film destroys any of the film's success would be a bit absurd, it's written so poorly the it's nearly true. We, as the audience, are expected to believe a man who openly cheated on his "soulmate" twice is her perfect match? When Rita leaves Cuba for NYC without Chico, we are supposed to have empathy for, worse yet sympathize with a man who has just betrayed his "soulmate" just for a second time. Chico is a womanizing near sociopath, who when denied starting over his relationship with Rita, still followers her throughout NYC. Rita has the characteristics of an abused housewife; despite constant consequences when having relations with Chico, she has such an emotionally fragile state that she still considers him to be her perfect match. Had the material had been handled in a far darker matter, perhaps some good could've stemmed from a matchmaking this subtly disturbing. However, this is a relationship expected to be rooted for. When these "lovebirds" finally get back together near the end of the film, it's far easier to feel uncomfortable than heart-warmed.
A surprise in many ways than an Oscar nomination, Chico and Rita boasts stunning and unique animation, but recedes due to its unrootable central love story. No matter how much the script yells: "THEY'RE MEANT TO BE!", it's impossible to shake the fact you're rooting for a slightly creepy stalker. Like last year's surprise Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature, The Illusionist, perhaps this film could've benefited from the silent treatment. It would give more time to listen to the 1950's jazz and appreciate the wonderful details of the film's animation, while putting far less emphasis on the main plot between our two dysfunctional lovers: Chico and Rita.
Note: After writing this review, I realized I forgot to mention the film's jazz score. For anyone interested in the music of the era, this film has a great soundtrack. If you don't, meh.