One of the best things about the establishment of a best animated feature award at the Oscars, is it's ability to give wider exposure to some lesser known films. It might be that Pixar win it more often than not, but even getting a nomination has brought global exposure to some smaller films that don't have the might of a major Hollywood studio behind them to promote them. In 2012, for the first time, Pixar weren't even nominated (thanks to the critically reviled Cars 2), clearing up spaces for not one, but two films that you probably haven't heard of: A Cat In Paris and Chico & Rita. Interestingly, both are traditionally animated (as opposed to Pixar style CGI) and are made outside of America. Despite qualifying for that year's awards season Stateside, Chico & Rita was actually released some time ago elsewhere, and has been available for some time here in the UK on Blu-ray and DVD.
Chico & Rita marks the first foray into feature animation for Spanish director Fernando Trueba, who already has a best foreign film Oscar on his mantle-piece, for 1992's Belle Epoque. Trueba shares the directing credit with Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando, neither of whom have directed a feature before. Chico & Rita stands out from all the other nominees- both in the year it was nominated and in general- in that it's a animated feature that is aimed squarely at adults. Not in a sex and violence sort-of-way (although there is a smattering of both) but in the fact that this is a romance, a relationship drama with adult themes and other things that children would most likely find dull.
The story follows the relationship of the titular couple, starting in a pre-revolutionary Cuba, where talented pianist Chico falls for the beautiful singer Rita, and charts the ups and downs of their relationship, as Chico follows his love to New York, Paris and beyond. Things don't run smoothly for the lovebirds, and the problems they face are much more serious than your average Hollywood rom-com couple.
The characters in the film are not really presented in the most in-depth manner. Most of the characters are pretty two-dimensional (no pun intended) and largely just revert to archetypes. Even Chico himself doesn’t have much of a personality, beyond his love for Rita. An argument could be made that this gives us no real reason to root for them as a couple. Yet despite weak characterisation, I found the story compelling enough to be engaged in their relationship.
Yet, in the end it isn't the story or characters that make this film work as well as it is. This is a film, about atmosphere, about a certain mood. The visuals are astonishing and look absolutely beautiful on Blu-ray. The creation of a sense of time and place in this film is impressive, with the portrayal of a pre-Castro Havana being practically a character in it's own right. It's this atmosphere that ultimately draws you into the story. The design is also of an extremely high quality. The backgrounds are incredibly intricate, which contrasts nicely with the simple, stylised character designs. The animation is smooth and slick and works beautifully in the musical dance numbers that pepper the film.
Equally important to the establishment of the atmosphere is the soundtrack. The music is a major part of the film. The Jazz and Latin music that features goes a long way to making the film work, even if you're not really a fan. Unfortunately, as my knowledge of the Jazz scene is negligible I can only guess, but it seems that the soundtrack will appeal very much to fans of that particular musical era.
Ultimately, this is a film that (appropriately) you feel rather than engage with on an intellectual level. This is a love-letter to a time and place gone by, to music and to love itself. It's quite unlike any animation being produced elsewhere; it feels uniquely Latin in flavour. It stands out as a testament to the possibilities of animation as a medium to tell stories for adults. It's rare (at least outside of Japan) for animation to tackle stories outside of comedy, so this film deserves recognition for it's success. It's a wonderful thing that the Oscar nomination has put the spotlight back on this film, as it slipped under many people's radars. If you're an animation lover, or a Jazz enthusiast (or even better, both) this is a gorgeous film that deserves to be seen. Unashamedly recommended.
[This Review was originally published on Screen Highway]