‘Chico & Rita’ – Living Through Another Cuba: Oscar-Nominated Animated Film Rumbas Its Way Into the Memphis Brooks Museum

Thursday night (April 5), the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art begins an extraordinary and impressive month of feature film screenings with the Spanish production “Chico & Rita,” a worthy surprise nominee this year for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film, John Beifuss reports for The Bloodshot Eye.

The nomination made the film something of a spoiler: The presence of “Chico & Rita” and France’s “A Cat in Paris” on the list of five nominees left no room for Lightning McQueen, making “Cars 2” the first Pixar movie to be ignored by Oscar since the Animated Feature category was added in 2001. (The winner was Paramount/Nickelodeon’s surreal chameleon Western, “Rango.”)

People familiar only with the cartoon features of Disney and Pixar and DreamWorks will be surprised by the themes, style and adult subject matter of “Chico & Rita.” Even the soundtrack is novel: Many traditional animated features (especially older Disney films) are essentially musicals, but “Chico & Rita” swings. The movie combines irresistible Latin rhythms with a bold animation style and references from several decades worth of political and pop-cultural history to create a story of alternately fulfilled and frustrated love that connects 1948 Cuba to New York, Paris, Hollywood and present-day Las Vegas and Havana. The result is brash and jazzy and — to use a word not often associated with animated feature films — sexy. This is a cartoon for grownups, not kids, complete with a “nude scene” showcasing the curvaceous Rita and a gangland slaying; the bullet hits bloom on the victim’s shirt like red ink staining porous drawing paper.

The film’s highly stylized art is deceptively simple; the rather stark characters are drawn in dark outline, as if with a Flair pen, with much of their movement traced from live-action reference footage in a “rotoscoping” process. The story is similarly unadorned. Chico (voiced by Eman Xor Oña) is a handsome be-bop pianist and songwriter eking out a living in vibrant, free-spending, pre-Communist Havana; Rita (Limara Meneses) is a beautiful singer and apparent prostitute, with the sly eyes of a cat and a figure to make a bulldog hug a hound (to switch for a moment from jazz to blues). Chico plays sweaty nightclubs; Rita, thanks to her looks, is able to gain access to such exclusive hotspots as the world-famous Tropicana. (One of the movie’s pleasures is the fine draftsmanship of the illustrations — whether hand-drawn or computer-generated — that function as the story’s “sets”; the Tropicana, for example, is based on archival photos of the nightclub.)

Chico and Rita become a team, onstage and off, but the relationship is doomed. The beautiful Rita is courted by Hollywood (possibly to appear in stand-alone numbers that can be cut from films in the South, as happened with Lena Horne), while Chico takes a dream job as pianist in Dizzy Gillespie’s world-touring band. (Diz, Bird, Tito Puente and Thelonious Monk are among the real-life jazz legends who make “guest appearances” in the film.) Drugs, organized crime and even revolution complicate the lead characters’ desire to spend their days making love and music. (In Castro’s Havana, Chico learns, jazz is forbidden for being “imperialist — the enemy’s music.”) Race represents another barrier; in America, we learn, influential and talented Cubans are driven to accept work as doormen and hotel maids.

“Chico & Rita” has three credited directors: Documentarian Fernando Trueba; renowned designer Javier Mariscal, who likely is most responsible for the film’s distinctive look; and Tono Errando. The movie was inspired, in part, by the experiences of its soundtrack composer, Afro-Cuban pianist and bandleader Bebo Valdés, who was an arranger at the Tropicana. However rerpesentative of the actual Afro-Cuban expatriate experience, the story is predictable; it’s essentially a chart on which to hang the music and design. Fortunately, these elements — the visuals suggest a jazz album cover come to life, or a Joan Miró canvas invaded by characters from “Love and Rockets” — ensure that the movie is always lively, even when the plot takes a downbeat turn. More “adult” than the brief nudity is the film’s acknowledgment that skill and ability and even good looks aren’t enough to guarantee a prosperous show business career, much less a life of contentment; no follow-your-dream wish-fulfillment fantasy, the film demostrates that talent can be discarded, discouraged and wasted — and yet, for all of that, life can be sweet. The final scene is a happy heartbreaker.

For tickets and more information about the screening, look here.

For the original report go to http://blogs.commercialappeal.com/the_bloodshot_eye/2012/04/chico-rita–.html

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