Review: The vibrancy of jazz and ’50s Havana can’t make up for the cardboard love interests in this dashed-off nominated feature
Over the last 25 years, there’s been a real boom in feature animation, from Disney’s re-emergence with “The Little Mermaid” to the rise of Pixar and Studio Ghibli to the mainstream distribution of adult-targeted films like “Persepolis” and “Waltz with Bashir.”
Animation, at its finest, frees the filmmaker to create whole worlds on film with no limits except his or her imagination.
Sometimes, unfortunately, you get a filmmaker who seems to use animation as a crutch, hoping that the pretty pictures will distract audiences from the weakness of the script. Which brings us to “Chico & Rita,” a by-the-numbers tale of star-crossed lovers who find and lose fame and fortune and each other.
That this movie scored a Best Animated Feature nomination over the better-drawn and better-written “Arthur Christmas” and “Winnie the Pooh” makes “Chico & Rita” yet another entry on the long list of Oscar’s Mistakes.
On paper, “Chico & Rita” would appear to have everything going for it — co-director Fernando Trueba (“Belle Epoque,” “La nina de tus ojos”) made the terrific 2000 documentary “Calle 54,” about Latin jazz legends like Tito Puente and Chucho Valdés, so you’d think he’d be just the guy to tell the story about Cuban piano player Chico (voiced by Eman Xor Oña) and lounge singer Rita (Limara Meneses).
The two meet in a seedy bar in Havana in 1948, but despite their immediate attraction, there always seems to be something getting in the way of their relationship. He’s got other girlfriends, she has career aspirations and, eventually, a Svengali who pushes Chico out of the picture by sending him on tour with Dizzy Gillespie.
They both end up in New York, she stars in an MGM musical, he gets deported to Cuba just in time for Castro to take over.
There’s an outline of an epic love story here, but screenwriters Trueba and Ignacio Martínez de Pisón never bother to fill it in all the way. It’s the kind of movie where the leads keep telling other characters how much they love each other, but we never see that spark, or overhear one conversation, where we get to see it and believe it for ourselves.
The character design hews closer to magazine illustrations than the traditionally realistic or prettied-up styles of animation, and many of the individual shots are certainly lovely to look at. Once you start noticing the details, however, you realize that certain facets of the animation are rushed and ugly. (The mattress in Chico’s apartment, for instance, never budges or buckles no matter how many times someone lies on it or gets up from it, giving those moments the weird stiffness you see in hastily made animated laptop creations on YouTube.)
At least “Chico & Rita” gets the music right, spanning the evolution of jazz from that first meeting in 1948 (where Rita croons “Besame Mucho”) to the modern day (when chanteuse Estrella Morente brings a character out of retirement to collaborate with her). Composer Bebo Valdés (one of the “Calle 54” players) crafts a score that’s appropriate to the period and skillfully interweaves it with jazz and vocal standards.
“Chico & Rita” promised to put a Cuban spin on Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York” — another look at a tempestuous relationship between a singer and a musician in the decades following World War II — but the result is a lost opportunity, a song with missing verses and an incomplete chorus.