By Brian Lafferty
February 24, 2012 (San Diego) – Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro. Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist. Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba’s Chico & Rita. These are three vastly different animated films from three different countries, but they share a trait rarely seen in animated films: they live and breathe humanism and portray close, heartfelt relationships.
Animation needn’t be a venue for the fantastical and the imaginary. Miyazaki’s Totoro does include some fantasy elements, but Miyazaki integrates them into a larger Yasujiro Ozu-like family drama. Chomet’s Illusionist was about a magician not unlike Jacques Tati’s affable, but frequently bumbling, Mr. Hulot. It could have emphasized the ineptness, but it didn’t; instead, at its heart was a relationship between the magician and a young woman.
Whereas the relationships in Totoro and The Illusionist are respectively familial and friendly, the relationship in Chico & Rita is both professional and intimate. The title characters are an accomplished pianist (Chico) and a gifted vocalist (Rita). The two fall in love, but circumstances – including a jealous manager who whisks Rita away to New York, a feisty jealous girlfriend, and Chico’s unwitting involvement with a band of criminals – keep them apart.
Much of this is told via Chico’s reflective flashbacks. Usually filmmakers use color and other cinematographic aspects to differentiate between the past and present. The film opens in modern day Cuba, which has been ravished by Fidel Castro’s regime. With its slummy looks, it’s no wonder Chico feels depressed and longing for the good old days.
Interestingly, when the action takes place in the 1940s and 1950s, it isn’t the animation that evokes the comparison so much as the jazz and Big Band music. There’s probably more music than dialogue. The smooth, classiness of Chico’s piano and the lively and swinging horns and saxophones strongly lend a sense of the atmosphere of the time, or at least what I think was the atmosphere then. They also perfectly mesh with the rhythm of the characters’ movements. In addition, it adds life to a city that’s already full of it.
Generally speaking, the colors are basic, washy, and rough. Other times, especially night life scenes in Cuba and New York City, the colors are stronger and a little more vibrant. The filmmakers contrast these colors by penciling in thick, protruding lines that offer enough texture to each environment. It isn’t beautiful animation, at least not traditional hand-drawn Disney beautiful. It isn’t ugly, either. It is, however, a cinematographic representation of the simple pleasures of life and the joys of youth.
Chico & Rita is filled with genuine nostalgia. Nostalgia is a funny thing. I’m only twenty-six, but recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the fun times I had growing up in the 1990s. I will always have a soft spot for the music, TV shows and movies, and the video games of the period. There are many memories of friends, vacations, and other aspects I will always hold dear.
These inclinations to live in the past are often tempered by the flip side of childhood. Sometimes I think of them as the good old days, but in reality they weren’t as good as I like to remember. Let’s just say I have as many bad memories as good ones.
Chico & Rita operates the same way. Sure, everybody is having a swinging good time pre-Castro. Chico is a hugely talented pianist who is afforded numerous opportunities for stardom. But he chucks it all. He struggles to find his way in New York. He squanders what could be his only opportunity to have more than a professional life with Rita. It’s really sad and pathetic.
Chico & Rita is not for kids. Besides the fact that it’s mostly in Spanish with English subtitles, it contains a lot of adult themes and adult content. There is full frontal nudity and sex (yes, animated films can be risqué; Ralph Bakshi proved it almost forty years ago with the X-rated Fritz the Cat). Adults who have ever fallen in love, lost track of a significant someone, or are nostalgic for their youth and perceived golden age will relate to it better than kids and teenagers who have yet to experience life.
Chico & Rita is now playing at the Landmark La Jolla Village Cinemas.
A GKIDS Films release. Directors: Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal. Screenplay: Ignacio Martínez de Pisón and Fernando Trueba. Original Music: Bebo Valdés. Voice Cast: Limara Meneses, Eman Xor Oña, and Mario Guerra. 94 minutes. Unrated (not for kids).