Chico and Rita is the kind of animated film that makes you realize that the narrative, rather than the medium through which it is shared, is what we’re all after when we read, listen to, or watch a story unfold. Originally released in 2010, but now available to stream on Netflix, Chico and Rita is a decades long love story about two young Afro-Cubans who come of age, and fall in and out of love, during the Bebop Jazz era.
Chico, pianist, composer, and part time philanderer, and Rita, the songstress with whom he falls in love the first time he sees her, give in to lust and alcohol and make love within the first few minutes of the film. Almost as quickly, there is a partially nude fight. Faces are slapped, bottles are thrown, jazz plays in the background.
Rita leaves and Chico gives chase. This is essentially the way their entire love story unfolds over the decades. One of the two is ready for something more, while the other recoils, unable to recover from past wounds, real and perceived. They do this dance for over 40 years until they have each run out of reasons not to be together.
The film follows the characters from pre-Castro Cuba, to New York, to Paris, to Las Vegas, and each locale is beautifully animated, and every scene is beautifully directed. In addition to the various locations in which we find out characters, we are also treated to animated cameos from Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo, and the great Thelonious Monk. The combination of the film’s score and narrative combine in a way that makes you forget that the film is animated.
While the locations are beautiful, the characters are beautifully drawn as well, particularly the characters of color. The Black and Afro-Cuban characters have large lips, broad noses, and skin tones that vary in color from coco butter to charcoal. They look like Black people should look.
The film touches on racism in a way that I found satisfying and refreshing. The story begins in 1940′s Cuba and New York. Our Afro-Cuban protagonists deal with racism as a matter of fact. They are acutely aware of it, upset by it, and comment on it, but do not allow its existence steal their joy or stop them from enjoying their lives. It is ever present, but not necessarily central to the plot.
Viewers who do not speak Spanish may have to watch the film twice to truly appreciate the story. The characters speak Spanish for 90% of the film with English peppered throughout. English subtitles are standard on the Netflix version of the film. The subtitles are rendered in white which can make the text difficult to read at times. While slightly annoying, this didn’t take away from the film’s beauty. In fact, I would venture to say that you could watch the film without the subtitles, whether you understand Spanish or not, and still enjoy watching the story unfold.
Aside from the subtitles, I think the film is perfect. If you enjoyed She’s Gotta Have It or 500 Days of Summer, I think you’ll enjoy this film.