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When the Academy Award nominations came out last year, I had never heard of Chico y Rita. So I did what everyone does when they don’t have an answer, I looked it up on the interwebs. You can imagine my shock when I found out it had no anthropomorphized cars, no dancing penguins, no talking toys and no kung-fuing pandas. Add to it that it is in a foreign language (like its fellow nominee A Cat in Paris) and I was really puzzled. After the Academy passed up more cutting edge animated fare, namely Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, I admit I was extremely curious about why it was chosen. Only three other films in this category had ever been nominated that were in a foreign language – Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville and The Illusionist and Vincent Parranoud & Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, all three amazing films who each deserved the Oscar more than those who won. Unfortunately, I was unable to catch a screening of it, so when Chico y Rita finally hit DVD this past week, I was very excited to get my hands on it.

Chico and Rita doing their thing.

And what a lovely film it is. It perfectly fits into the über-nostalgic slate of films like Hugo, The Artist and Midnight in Paris also up for Oscars, albeit a little sexier than the others. The film follows star-crossed lovers and music collaborators Chico (voiced by Eman Xor Oña) and Rita (voiced by Limara Meneses), who meet in Havana in the late 40s when jazz is in the height of its popularity. She sings and he tickles the ivories and together they make a great, if not volatile, team. That is until jealousy, career ambitions and troubles with the law break them apart over and over again. Will they make it? I guess you will need to watch for that answer.

Chico and Rita in Habana Vieja.

The big question one might ask after seeing this is, “Why was it animated?” It would have made a fine live-action film, I suppose. However, the animation really brought out the liveliness of Habana Vieja, the grandeur of 1950s New York in a way that no film set could…because it would be just that: a film set.  This film is reflection back on one’s youth as told through flashbacks from Chico’s point of view. They say hindsight is 20/20, but we all know as our memories get longer, they distort, magnify, and exaggerate what we believe happened in the past. The animation really brings this out and I believe helps tell the better story. The distance between the events and Chico, who is much older than when the bulk of the movie occurs, adds to the memories like time adds inches to a fish story. The color palette also adds to the dreaminess of the film – bold yellows, bright pinks, the flashing neon lights of Times Square and Las Vegas all paint the world as once imagined by Chico.

Bright Lights, not yet a Big City

Chico y Rita is a delectable little film, one worthy of any praise it garners. While its story is one that at its most basic has been told many times over, it is how filmmakers Tono Errando, Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba express that story that makes it unique. And the music is OUTSTANDING.

This production is what film is all about and what still excites me after all these years of watching.