Pixar. DreamWorks. Studio Ghibli. These are probably the most famous producers of mainstream cinematic animation in this young 21st century, and their dominance may make us forget that they aren’t the only ones making beautiful animated features.
Step in Chico and Rita, an example of animation that proves you don’t need perfectly drawn characters and surroundings to dazzle. The style of this film is simple yet effective, both brazen and subtle (evoking Richard Linklater’s 2001 roto-scoped animation Waking Life), and it almost gets by on that factor alone. Almost.
The trouble with Chico and Rita is that it’s so specific in its tone – you might say a tone too perfectly captured – that it may isolate anyone who isn’t interested in the music and setting that we’re thrown into the deep end of from minute one.
The film tells the story of the on-off relationship of the eponymous characters, Chico, a relatively unknown but highly skilled piano player, and Rita, a beautiful, seductive and passionate singer and dancer who catches Chico’s eye from across a crowded room. Typical…
The main focus, perhaps entirely the point, of Chico and Rita is to immerse the audience in the world of Cuban music, Cuban atmosphere, Cuban life. Even when the story shifts from Havana to New York the “Cuban-ness” is as potent as it was back home. And while this is interesting from an outsider for some time to experience all of this – almost as like a tourist really visiting these locations and listening to this music – if it’s not really your cup of tea, as they say, to start with then the overall feel and tone wears thin.
Other than exploring music in-depth (as clichéd as it is to say, music really is like another character in and of itself) , the film takes a long hard look at an on-off, up-and-down relationship between two people are obviously meant for each other but roadblocks keep getting in the way. Well, that is if you’re one of those hopefulness romantics at heart. The more cynical viewers out there might find it all a bit hard to swallow, especially since it’s laid on pretty thickly throughout. It really does depend on your point of view whether you’ll buy into the nature of the relationship or not.
The technicalities of producing the simplistic animation are arguably more interesting than the film itself. Although it is an animated film, the filmmakers actually filmed everything with real actors and props (including but not limited to 1940s cars, old architecture, musical instruments etc) and then either used them as basis for the animation (how the actors moved for example) or actually traced over them. This gives the film a strangely realistic fluidity (which, might I add, is stunning Blu-ray) that might not have been attained had it just been pure animation without using real life to base it off of.
Ultimately I can say I admired Chico and Rita more than I actually enjoyed it, marvelling at the “how did they do that?” animation which evokes a peculiar sense of realism instead of being truly invested in the key characters and their troubled relationship. Indeed a slice of Cuban life and its integral musical scene – whether you’ll enjoy it will probably depend on whether that is really your thing to begin with.
Not exactly a wealth of special features but along with the obligatory audio commentary and trailer, there is a pretty lengthy 27 minute making of documentary that focuses on everything from the recording of music and the forming of the characters to all the hard work that went into the animation (apparently around 200 animators worked on it!). Nothing spectacular but certainly worth a watch as a companion piece to back up the film.
Although the Blu-ray release doesn’t sport any extra features over the DVD, this is one surely worth spending the extra few bucks on. The bright colours and fluid motion of the animation benefit from the upgraded picture of 1080p, really giving it that extra eye-popping colourful look that was surely the filmmakers intention as part of them immersing you in this world. Also the music, which plays a crucial role, definitely benefits from the superior sound quality.