Chico & Rita: An illustrated love story

Chico-1Animation aimed at adults is not a new thing. It has been around since way back in the 1920s, but recently the medium has thrown up a few notable gems. Persepolis won the grand prize at Cannes in 2007 for its autobiographical tale of the Iranian revolution, while the visually-stunning Israeli film Waltz with Bashir received praise for its story of a former soldier haunted by visions of the 1982 Lebanon War. And in 2010, the musical love story Chico & Rita was premiered to huge acclaim.

It’s the story of a romance between jazz pianist Chico (voiced by Eman Xor Ona) and the sultry singer Rita (Limara Meneses) who meet in 1940s Cuba. Set in a world of jazz clubs in pre-revolutionary Havana, it’s as much about their relationship as it is a love letter to the evolution of jazz music itself. Accordingly, the story latterly shifts to 1950s New York as they, and new forms of jazz, find their way to the world capital of pop culture.

Unlike most modern animation this is all hand-drawn. It took 250 animators, in seven different studios, more than three and a half years to complete. The result is a simplified but warm style with direction and movement that feels more like live action than a cartoon. This was largely due to the studio shooting the scenes with live actors, whose performances were then traced. Put together by Fernando Trueba, artist Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando, the latter spoke of their collective desire to visually represent the era. “Havana is very colourful, horizontal, warm and very sensual, while New York by contrast is almost monochromatic and very vertical. These are two archetypes that define very well the Latin and Anglo-Saxon character; the relaxed and friendly Havana compared to the cosmopolitan and super-efficient Big Apple.

“Jazz in the 1950s, musicians, their dress, their playing, their movements, the premises in which they played, the fashions of the women who came to the venues in this decade — all that had to be reflected very realistically.”

Soon though, you find that the story and the sounds, rather than the visuals, take over. The soundtrack, which works as the third main-character in the story, was arranged by celebrated Cuban jazz pianist/composer Bebo Valdés, who the character of Chico was partially based on. The film-makers re-recorded all the music themselves by getting modern musicians in Spain, Cuba and New York to emulate stars of the day, instead of just using old material that already existed. The pioneers of jazz also get their on-screen dues, with music and visual appearances from the likes of Bebo Valdes, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Tito Puente, as well as animated cameos by Woody Herman, Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart and Nat King Cole.

But you don’t need to be a fan of jazz to enjoy the film. Towards the end, it’s the central characters’ on/off romance that brings the story together. The result is that this 2D animated story has more life in it than the vast majority of live-action romances you see on screen.

Accordingly, it was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2012 Oscars, though it lost out to Rango. This wasn’t surprising but was a little disappointing. Rango looked fantastic, but it did have a budget of $135million, a star cast and the might of Paramount pictures and its computer animation studios behind it. Chico & Rita is a love story told via traditional hand-drawn animation and accompanied by a beautiful soundtrack. It’s out on DVD and represents one of the finest animated films you’ll see in this, or any other, year.

Recreating 1940s Havana

If you watch this film — and please do — look out for the backgrounds during all the street scenes in Havana. The film-makers spent a month filming in Havana to help with the animation process and to give visual guides to the actors providing the voices. But crucially they discovered that the government in 1949 had assembled an archive of photographs to help with street repairs. With access to these images, the film-makers had pictures of every street corner in Havana from that year, which was serendipitously the date that Chico & Rita was going to be set. What you see on screen is not just a rough re-imagining, but a historical representation of Havana in that era. And it’s fantastic.

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