Two unique and independent animated films snuck into the Best Animated Feature Oscar category this year and they both happen to be distributed by the same studio, GKIDS. Even though the Oscars are over, I thought I’d review both anyways.
Chico is a superior pianist living in pre-revolution Cuba when he meets the talented singer Rita. After repeatedly bumping into each other throughout a crazy night, Chico and Rita cannot deny the spark between them and they spend a (surprisingly, for animation) sexy night together. For one reason or another they spend the next few years in a passionate on-again-off-again romance while globe trotting from New York to Paris to Las Vegas and Hollywood. Rita becomes a big singer and movie star, while Chico writes a song that becomes a standard. There’s betrayal, bad luck, and worse timing as politics, history, and tastes change their world forever.
The story is old fashioned and romantic, but a welcome reminder of a bygone era. Even though the movie isn’t that long it still meanders for some stretches. The plot takes its time to get going, and there’s a flashback framing device that isn’t really necessary. The film does evoke the time period and settings very well but sacrifices forward momentum for the vibrant atmosphere. The jazz music helps give the film some bounce, but the original compositions weren’t that memorable. If a pretend song is meant to be a hit, then it should be good enough for me to believe it once was. Here, not so much.
The animation style is colorful and distinctive but they used some form of rotoscoping that I did not care for. The characters faces are robbed of more finite emotions due to whatever process they employed. It is nice to see an animated film for adults, even a severely flawed one. And even with the wonky animation, the romance is still believable and more than a little tragic. Plus, it’s not every day where you can find a toon with full frontal nudity and see it handled in a mature way. I can see why the film managed the nomination, even if it didn’t deserve to win.
At just over an hour long, this hand-drawn gem wasn’t just the shortest nominee; it was also my favorite of the group. The film opens by following a crafty cat burglar leaping through the night, stealing just for the thrill, coming and going as he pleases. He is shadowed by a black cat wherever he goes. But in the morning we learn that the cat belongs to a shy little girl living in the building next to the thief.
It doesn’t take long for the girl’s story to cross paths with the thief’s, but it does so in a whacked-out and madcap fashion. At the midpoint the film hits overdrive and doesn’t let up as the thin plot becomes overstuffed with cops, gangsters, spies, and cat hijinks. It’s loads of fun with supremely clever bits of animation.
There’s a small plot detail about the death of the girl’s father that never really lands quite right, but other than that the film chugs right along. The film perfectly straddles the line between zany cartoon action and real life mystery with consequences. It’s a little dark but always let’s up before it becomes unsuitable for children. I knew it didn’t stand a chance of winning against the longer and bigger budgeted films, so now all I hope for is that more people seek this one out and discover it for themselves.