Movie Review - Chico & Rita

I was raised on Disney cartoons where the most any character did was kiss for a second or two. Within the past decade, I've seen Japanese anime that's gone farther. In Waltz With Bashir (2008), the Israeli animated film, you saw nudity and suggested sexual situations, but, in this cartoon, there is full-on sexual intercourse depicted. If the exposed leg and ample bosom of Jessica Rabbit weren't enough, in Chico & Rita, we get to see an animated vagina on screen and not just for a second or two, the filmmakers show us the cartoon coochie for a long while.

But, besides the naked animated people, this film also features swearing. Characters curse up a storm. Granted, it's all in Spanish, but English subtitles are provided, but it all adds up to a vivid picture that gets painted of the nightlife and music scene of Havana, Cuba in 1948. Chico Valdes is a piano player living there when he meets Rita Martinez, a sultry singer with whom he falls instantly in love.

The two team up as a music duo but various people and circumstances come along to break them up. Through these people and circumstances, we follow the arc of jazz music. We start at the height of its popularity in the early to mid 20th century with depictions of actual artists like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to its decline just a decade or two later. We end with jazz music's recent resurgence with younger and often white, pop artists collaborating with older jazz greats.

Herbie Hancock recently won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. This came not long after he collaborated with pop artists like Christina Aguilera. It's not the same as with what happens in Chico & Rita, but the coda here is certainly analogous. While it's a steamy, back-and-forth, love affair between Chico and Rita, that at times resembles a Mexican telenovela, this movie is also a fitting tribute to jazz and to the bygone era from whence it was great.

Oscar winner Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoque), artist-designer Javier Mariscal, and co-director Tono Errando create a beautiful and sexy backdrop for their characters and move them through it, giving us more of a romanticized view of that time period. They don't really contrast with the poverty, the politics and the prejudice that we're supposed to feel all throughout, but that poverty, those politics and that prejudice are accentuated at the end when a drunken Rita, now a star in New York City, comments about the contradictions of being a black artist in this time. It's important but it hardly resonates.

The filmmakers do provide a sensuality and an energy here that's unlike any I've felt in other animated films in recent or even long-term memory. With the exception of Waltz With Bashir or Persepolis, which were both based on true stories, most animated films possess a sense of wonder and fantasy that always keeps you at a distance. Many animated films still manage to touch your heart, but this film delivers a reality that feels more real than any other. Even in Chico's crazy dream sequence, which happens half-way into it and features weird references to Hollywood, including an appearance from Humphrey Bogart and later Marlon Brando, there's still a reality here that's amazing.

I'd also hate to delight in the way that the filmmakers objectify Rita, but I did delight in the fact that a character like her is even being objectified at all. Disney had Jasmine in Aladdin (1992) and Tiana in The Princess and the Frog (2009), but often a woman of color, be she black, hispanic or any minority, is rarely seen in a leading role, be it animated or not. Rita has big, full lips and a wide nose and real curves. It's a type of beauty to be appreciated.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but Recommended for Mature Audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 34 mins.


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