Cartoons are for kids. Sure, there are edgy ones like The Simpsons or South Park which are more targeted at older audiences, but even then when kids watch them behind their parents’ backs, they’ll find plenty to like beyond just the forbidden fruit aspect. But with Chico & Rita, the Spanish have created an animated feature that is completely devoid of interest for young viewers. Probably because it’s completely devoid of interest for everyone, except apparently the handful of idiots who can get things nominated for Academy Awards.
In 1940s Cuba, Chico was good at two things: playing jazz piano and discarding women after one-night stands. Most of the time, the women are young, drunk American tourists (and this was before the revolution that turned Cuba into an island of Communists and imprisoned terrorists), but one night he met a Cuban woman so beautiful and intriguing that he dumped his American hotties even before sleeping with them. Rita had an amazing voice and loose morals, so the night ended with them in bed together (complete with animated nudity), and it may have been a long and happy life together if Chico’s girlfriend hadn’t barged in and thrown Rita out.
What follows is a story better suited to the pages of craigslist missed connections than the big screen. As Chico pursues, Rita shies away. And when Rita decides she wants Chico, he dismisses her. Their entertainment careers begin to take off (separately, of course), and as they find the professional success they so desperately want, it only becomes harder for them to find each other.
It’s a tragic love story, but the vast majority of the tragedy comes from their own selfishness, stubbornness, and stupidness than from external forces beyond their control, so the tragedy doesn’t really create a whole lot of conflict. And when a bigger obstacle finally does present itself, the nature of that obstacle is so out of proportion with the inciting incident that it’s hard to take seriously. All this makes for a pretty boring story about a couple of people in which there is no emotional investment, and I started looking at my watch as early as 30 minutes into the film.
If there isn’t much enjoyment to be had from the story, then one would hope to be able to extract some entertainment value from the quality of the animation. Unfortunately, Chico & Rita disappoints there, too. It’s functional enough that you’ll be able to understand what’s going on, but it’s just not exciting. The images are largely flat, non-shaded, and fairly minimalist, so that’s a refreshing departure from the computer-rendered 3D crap Hollywood animation studios put out, but it still lacks something that other recent films (like fellow Oscar nominees A Cat in Paris from 2011 and The Illusionist from 2010) manage to capture. Whereas some people find hands hard to draw, the Chico & Rita animators can’t seem to get lips right — they’re all abnormally large and oddly colored, and it only serves to distract from what little story the film manages to provide.
Without a good story or pretty eye candy, I’m really not sure what appeal Chico & Rita is supposed to have. Apparently someone felt differently than I did in order to give it a nomination for best animated feature, but these are the same people who considered Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close a real contender for best picture and only managed to find two candidates for best song, so perhaps we should just stop giving any consideration to what they have to say.