The story (told via flashback for the majority of the time) begins in late forties Cuba, where talented pianist Chico meets the women of his dreams, in the form of beautiful, up-and-coming singer Rita. The course of love runs far from smooth for the duo however, and due partially to Chico’s misplaced jealousy and emotional short-sightedness, Rita is lured away to the bright lights of New York City, and a potential career on stage and screen. Fortunately, the affection between both proves to a powerful thing, and their dalliances continue in the US and beyond, even when they find themselves in very different situations and lifestyles.
If you’re tired of the increasing number of Hollywood features which fail to evoke even a semblance of genuine love and affection between their flesh and blood leads, Chico & Rita should be your first port of call. The film is a pure delight from start to finish. The characters are incredibly well-drawn (in both senses) and the original soundtrack is full of highly foot-tapable and finger-clickable Latino jazz numbers, all set within a lovingly-crafted world, with a strong attention to detail which superbly brings to life all the locations – whether it be a (reefer) smoke-filled Parisian jazz club or those now iconic-looking, US classic cars-strewn streets in Cuba. In fact, it’s hard to think of any recent works in cinema which have managed to create a sense of time and place so vividly as here. It’s a film which will definitely have you checking out potential Cuban holiday destinations online as the end credits roll.
Using the rotoscope technique (used to similarly stunning effect in the likes of A Scanner Darkly and Belleville Rendez-Vous) of superimposing the animation over actual live-action scenes, the makers have managed to imbue the action and character movements with a realistic, yet float-y, dream-like feel, and there’s a lovely simplicity to the actual animation. An abstract, paint-splashed dream sequence midway through, (where Chico imagines the lovely Rita succumbing to the glitzy life in the Big Apple), is also a thing of wonder, and is something that only an animated tale can really bring to life in a magic and enchanting way.
The inclusion of real-life celebrated luminaries from the world of jazz like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie is a real treat too, and helps to further ground the film within a realistic and human setting.
The story itself is pretty straight-forward, and while some may complain that there isn’t much subtext here or social relevance to the lover’s plight (any commentary on the politics and racial issues of that era is broadly addressed) Chico and Rita make such an engaging and attractive pair, these minor shortcomings don’t really present an issue as such.
The best thing to do here is sit back, take in the lush visuals and breezy, bebop-infused musical numbers, and marvel at the maker’s abilities and achievements in breathing life and a genuine sense of love (and all the human foibles and very relatable flaws that sometimes stems from that) into their 2D creations and the environment they inhabit.
Make a date with Chico and Rita now.