Refreshingly cast in eye-popping animation of a more traditional, “pre-digimation” variety, Chico and Rita (2010) softly commences on a steamy night in Havana in 1948. Born out of a close collaboration between Oscar-winning director Fernando Trueba and celebrated Spanish artist Javier Mariscal, this visually distinctive feature details a classical story of love, loss, fame and success.
On said steamy night, Chico (voiced by Emar Xor Ona), an on-the-up jazz pianist in search of a talented voice with whom to perform his music, becomes instantaneously transfixed by Rita (voiced by Limara Meneses but sung by Idania Valdes), a voluptuous, seductive songbird of a tender and passionate nature who holds the key to both his success and his heart. Initially the embodiment of smooth confidence, Chico manages to charm her for just about long enough to lure her into his bed, and have her inspire the composition of a song that will make his career and haunt his life. Almost as soon as it’s begun, their relationship is brought to a premature end due to persisting interests from Chico’s previous mistresses.
What follows is a heated series of events that spans six decades. The two Cuban musicians never far from one another’s thoughts, perform across New York, Paris, Hollywood and Las Vegas, each making a number of decisions that are far from fruitful along the way. While at first the never quite a couple’s connection is engaging, their lack of behavioural credibility soon sees them thoroughly upstaged by their surroundings and with fewer dimensions than the style in which they drawn.
This departure from intrigue occurs at around forty minutes when the narrative’s promises of fame, failure and an eventual rekindled love are all too obviously charted in the ether. Awkwardly at times, it’s difficult to discern whether the absence of emotional depth is entirely the fault of the script or if it’s simply attributable to the limitations for animation of this kind. Certain key scenes require little stretch of the imagination to envisage superior live-action performances wrought with far more immediate and apparent feeling; instances of close ups, presumably geared towards articulating sexual tensions, fall particularly flat.
However, the style of Chico and Rita’s animation manages to carry it sturdily enough to its predictable and unrewarding conclusion. Characters and cityscapes are outlined in bold black lines and fleshed with equally bold uses of block colour. Although this style may not bring its characters totally to life, it is nonetheless captivating with regards to the high level of attention paid to environmental detail, evident throughout; each scene seething with touches of period authenticity and atmosphere provided much needed points of interest in the film’s glitzier middle and end sections.
The film’s most notable saving grace comes arguably from its musical numbers, which I, not being a jazz enthusiast in any way, am ill-equipped to pass too much judgement upon. However, what can be said is that the film’s compositions written by Bebo Valdés, offer us glimpses of what Chico and Rita could have been if as much emotion and atmosphere poured from the rest of its construction in the same way they do its music.
Ultimately, despite being largely at odds with itself, when set against recent animation trends that typically centre around celebrity voice acting and cute animals, Chico and Rita is a breath of fresh air striving for originality. It may be a very small and fleeting gasp of fresh air, but it’s fresh nonetheless.