Review: CHICO & RITA looks back with dreamlike splendor

Jim Tudor, Contributor
Nostalgia can be a bewitching bedfellow, particularly when it comes to the ways of love. As CHICO & RITA, the surprise nominee for Best Animated Feature at the recent Academy Awards, is finally reaching the screen here in St. Louis, so too is the corporately concocted hopeful franchise re-starter AMERICAN REUNION. Both films focus on re-connecting with the past, and do so through the filter of sexual relationships. But, as AMERICAN REUNION slaps audiences' rumps down a memory lane of awkward sexual high jinks, CHICO & RITA opts for the grown-up approach - even as it presents itself in a medium all too often pigeonholed as kids' territory.
It's late 1940s Havana, animated in glorious 2D with a crisp yet lush thick-line quality and solid colors meant to evoke ink and paint techniques of yesteryear. (Computers were utilized, jarringly so in a handful of sequences - their glossy-smooth obviousness being one of the films few real shortcomings.) It's with nothing but simple designs and attractive minimalism that the story of unknown piano virtuoso Chico (voice of Eman Xor Oña) goes around in years-long impassioned circles with the lovely Rita, an upcoming singing sensation (voice of Limara Meneses). With very few rendered lines, the facial expressions and body language of this film convey more raw emotion than most any computer-generated motion capture film has yet been able to.

Even amid her humble beginnings amid the throbbing nightlife of their native streets, it's clear that Rita isn't like the other girls. While they "Wooo!" their way to yet another drink at the bar with their vapid shallowness and party girl facades, Rita needs only a subtle glance or a smile to put them all to shame. It may be an American slogan, but she's the real thing, steaming up the screen as she sashays about in a yellow dress, proving irresistible to an already-bitten Chico. (Not to mention his well-meaning manager, a bittersweet never-to-be love.)

After a night of love making, she wakes up smiling to Chico's beautiful piano playing. She has a long, satisfied stretch before rising and making her way to join him at the piano. The sunbeams cascade through the billowing translucently worn window sheer. She is naked, putting her arms around him as he plays, joining in with vocals to what will eventually be their first and only hit tune. For just this moment, all is perfect and right in their world.

But the moment is intensely short-lived, as Chico's own philandering lifestyle catches up with both of them before the sequence has a chance to end. It is in moments like these that sense is made of the modern-day lonely old man the film occasionally cuts back to: Chico as a lonely and forgotten elderly shoe polish man. Regret hangs heavy. If only he'd learned to put proper commitment before pride... If only she'd slow down to admit to herself he's the love of her life... But alas, these lessons are elusive, so they continue around and around, through decades , vast locales, and career highs and lows. It's through aged Chico's mind's eye that we experience everything, thus justifying the film's sweetly tinged nostalgia, not to mention its tendency to both nearly deify and also dismiss Rita, the beautiful voice who got away. And again, we marvel that it's through humble cartoon characters that we're experiencing this.

With it's Latin beats and music-driven magnetic passions set among romanticized visions of mid-century Havana, New York, Las Vegas, and Hollywood, this is the outright sexiest movie I've seen in a while, earning its sexiness at every turn. Most of this comes through the atmosphere and vibe of it all, although there is a degree of afore-mentioned tasteful nudity in the film. The range of animated feature films that go into this territory is historically narrow, the standout artist being the notorious and respected Ralph Bakshi. While Bakshi's trademark rotoscoping techniques (or a contemporary variation thereof) appear present in CHICO & RITA, that feeling of sleaze that often accompanies even his more personal adult animated features (I'm thinking about HEAVY TRAFFIC) is thankfully absent here. As the headstrong leads spend most of the film clashing with one another while simultaneously pining, CHICO & RITA is a dignified portrayal of how complex human longing and raw human fallibility so rarely go hand in hand.

Sure, this story could've been told through live action, but the graphic novel flavor would then be all but lost; the escapist storyworld forced to compete with real life in an unintended way. And what be the point of that? Ramshackled Havana is at least just as tactile and "real" in ink and watercolor as it would be if a construction crew and an army of set dressers took on a 1950s restoration of an actual part of town. In the hands of filmmakers Tono Errando, Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba, there's something undeniably magical about the world they've put forth, even if it is our world, warts and all. To their further credit, the film remains in its native Spanish language (with English subtitles), resisting the popular urge to simply record and dub in English speaking voices.

Getting back to my earlier comparison of dueling theatrical releases, where AMERICAN REUNION (not an out-and-out poor film, mind you) hijacks the deep mysteries of sex and love, tossing them into the service of juvenile humiliation gags, CHICO & RITA prevails as the truth-telling, vibrant, and never dull look back at younger days of passion. REUNION offers cameos from an awkward Shannon Elizabeth, among others; CHICO & RITA give us glimpses of Tito Puente and young Marlon Brando. There's no comparison (although I'm not letting that stop me). If these movies are a choice for you (and even if they're not), choose to get animated with the brazen and unique grown-up dance of CHICO & RITA. It's a can't-miss sensual sensation.

- Jim Tudor
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