There’s always that one (sometimes two) film nominated for an Animated Feature Oscar that I never heard of and can’t get access to until long after the ceremony. It’s one of the few categories I actually pay attention to since I’m always looking for great animated films to watch. Chico & Rita seemed promising: A musical that begins in 1940s Havana and then moves into 1950s New York, following the stop-and-go romance of clueless pianist Chico and sultry singer Rita. Laced with jazzy tunes, a number of recognizable musical cameos, and a smidgeon of race commentary, it seemed a breath of fresh air for the animated musical genre so often reserved for family-friendly fare.
The thing everyone needs to know about this movie is that it is essentially a standard 50s musical, only with people of color and more nudity. The under-written romance, show biz lifestyle, inundation of jazz numbers, and character archetypes (dopey male lead who thinks he’s charming, sassy lady who just needs her outer shell cracked, jokester best friend who’s morally flexible, asshole white guy manager, etc) are all in keeping with the basic formula. I like those movies, so I didn’t mind it. It was like an homage, really, with a few moments of self-aware criticism as Rita’s character reacts against the racism she experiences in the American movie industry. Plus there’s a dream sequence that features Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, and On the Town!
The music is great, and I loved that musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Tito Puente make appearances as Chico navigates the New York music scene. It becomes sort of a mini music history lesson on the influence of Cuban culture on American jazz. For the most part I liked the animation- it’s energetic and colorful- but there is a weird disconnect between the backgrounds and characters that gave it an off-putting floating effect. Presumably they used Flash for some parts? The painted backdrops are gorgeous though.
In the end I think it’s the script that’s weakest. Like many a classic musical, this romance isn’t strong enough to hold the film together. But there’s no clever banter or high-flying dance numbers to distract the audience. I really wish the issues surrounding Latin American performers in American theater and films had been more explored, but I think the filmmakers wanted to keep it more focused on the music.
Pair This Movie With: One of those other show bizzy-type old musicals, I’d say. There’s No Business Like Show Business comes to mind. Or Stormy Weather.