Tuesday, 18 January 2011
Why is it that only non-english-speaking countries understand that animated films can be for grown-ups? Here's a picture which contains sex, nudity, drink, drugs, murder and latin jazz, and it's a flipping cartoon! That's not to say this is some sensationalist splatter-porn be-bop monstrosity. Far from it. This is a warm, optimistic, colourful, vibrant tribute to undying love and undying love for music.
Chico is an elderly shoe-shiner, living in poverty and solitude, who takes us through multiple flashbacks to his heyday as a be-bop/jazz/latin/whatever pianist in Havana in the long long ago. He meets Rita, a beautiful singer, and they form a bond that will cross decades and borders before they can be happy.
The animation has an identity all of its own, seeming both hand-drawn and digitally manipulated, with a lovingly rendered sketchy quality and an attention to detail rarely seen. Every location is brilliantly evoked, from Cuban dives and concert halls to New York clubs and Vegas motels, and the characters are personified perfectly in mannerisms and physicality.
In Rita, we are presented with possibly the sexiest cartoon character since Jessica Rabbit; all sultry curves, smoky eyes and smouldering shimmies, but some may cry foul when, during a post-coital piano-jam, she goes full-frontal whilst Chico keeps his pants resolutely belted up.
The soundtrack is, of course, very important here, and if you are a jazzer, you will find much to love. Personally, I subscribe to the Vince Noir school of thought that jazz is just for science teachers and the mentally ill, but even I found my toes tapping here and there and my soul lifting with some of the softer numbers.
It is in the marriage of music and image, and the representation of the all-consuming love that the music inspires in the characters, that the film truly soars. Along with the aforementioned nude piano session, where Rita begins to improvise a melody for some ivory tickling Chico just sussed out, there is a scene in a deserted bar where Chico bangs the keys whilst the barman uses bottles for percussion and Rita dances like she's possessed. These two scenes alone are the best depictions of the unifying power of music since the piano-shop scene in "Once".
The film deals with immigration and racism without ever seeming preachy or patronising, and manages to feel like an epic even within its hour-and-a-half runtime.
The one draw-back may also be the film's strong point, and that is in the basic simplicity of the plotting and the lack of development of the central relationship. Chico and Rita get together and fall out repeatedly throughout their lives with little to no logical explanation, and their love never really transcends the appearance that they just both like music on some kind of molecular level. I'm sure I could be accused of being curmudgeonly, but I never fully understood why they kept getting back together beyond that was what they were supposed to do.
Visually and aurally, "Chico and Rita" is a treat and the story is simple, yet largely effective. Check it out, if only to remind yourself that animation doesn't have to be about cute animals with celebrity voices.