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Chico and Rita

April 2, 2012
Chico and Rita

Around these parts, “animated movie” is synonymous with “kids’ fare”. While the best animated films can appeal to adults — Rango springs to mind — they’re still mostly marketed to and aimed at a younger audience. The biggest exception is Japanese anime, but even there the ones that get theatrical releases stateside are almost all Studio Ghibli films brought here by Disney. But now comes Chico and Rita, with a bittersweet romance and a Cuban beat to remind us how flexible the medium can be.

Chico Valdés (Eman Xor Oña) is a skilled pianist and songwriter in 1948 Havana, while Rita Martinez (Limara Meneses for dialogue, Idania Valdés for vocals) is a beautiful and talented chanteuse. They meet one night, and despite a rocky start they decide to compete in a musical contest, winning a contract for a month at the Hotel Nacional. It’s there that Rita catches the eye of an American agent, Ron (Lenny Mandel), who offers her a gig in New York City. Initially she refuses to leave Chico, but his erratic behavior drives her away.

Chico and his friend Ramón (Mario Guerra) follow some time later, hoping that carrying a letter for percussionist Chano Pozo will be Chico’s foot in the door of the New York jazz scene, just as the fusion with Cuban styles is at its peak. Of course, Chico hopes to reunite with Rita, but like the bolero he writes for her their dance has many near-misses to go before its conclusion.

As you might expect, music is the soul of this film. The bulk of it is expertly composed and arranged by Cubano pianist Bebo Valdés — his appearance clearly a strong influence on Chico — who was featured in director Fernando Trueba’s 2000 documentary Calle 54. The rest is made up of classic selections from Cole Porter, Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, and more. Valdés’ own “A Mayra” is included as “Rita” — later rearranged into “Lily” — and shows up as a clear influence on much of the incidental music.

The animation follows the style of designer Javier Mariscal. The faces and surfaces are flat — almost cubist in the casual disregard for perspective at the small scales. And yet, when the camera moves there is a wonderfully graceful parallax that gives the images an unexpected depth. The motion makes it feel almost more like watching a moving cut-out diorama than a flat image, and it makes you realize just how still most “animated” features are.

With all this skill deployed in the visual and musical artistry, you might well worry that the story suffers, but Trueba is no slouch here either. It may not be the most original story in the world, but it plays out beautifully as Chico and Rita slip by each other time after time. Their frustrated longing for each other shows up as much on their faces and in their silent actions as it does in anything they say; Trueba heeds well the advice of the old jazz musician, that the soul is all in what isn’t played.

The only false note is in the translation. I’m not by any means fluent in Spanish, and yet I can tell when a long line is cut down, or that a subtitle appears when nobody is speaking. But this sort of thing should be ironed out by the time the forthcoming dubbed version has its wider release.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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