Nominees for the Best Animated Feature Oscar are almost always the same hip family ghoulash. Mostly Pixar or DreamWorks-produced, big distributor, voiced by big-name actors, big budget, aimed at kids and adults. Even when they’re from outside the U.S., like A Cat in Paris, they still feel like typical family-friendly fare. Which is why it’s pleasing that at least one of this year’s nominees — Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal‘s Chico and Rita — doesn’t do the usual usual.
It’s an adult Cuban jazz romance that spans decades and involves a love affair between a man and a woman who actually smooch and disrobe and have sex in the early stages (a huge commercial no-no in the animation realm). The animation is primitive on one level but refreshingly different on another — it’s drawn to a different drum. And it has a sweaty, sensuous soundtrack, composed by Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes with additional tunes by Freddy Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, Cole Porter and Thelonious Monk.
I didn’t feel patronized by Chico and Rita. I felt i was watching…hell, I was watching something that actually dared to stand outside the family-friendly arena. But charmingly, winningly.
Chico and Rita can’t win the Oscar, of course. The winner has to be the amusing, financially successful Rango! Gore Verbinski‘s Rango! It’s a decently made thing, for one. And it’s got Johnny Depp as a lizard (kewl!) and it’s an hommage to Sergio Leone films and shit. It’s the hip thing to stand by if you want to be hip, and who doesn’t? Plus Verbinski and Depp are really loaded from their Pirates of the Caribbean profit-share payments and…well, it’s hard to not award a film made by a couple of really rich guys, y’know?
It’s all a rigged game, it always stays the same, the fix is in, the rich get richer, etc.
The only thing that threw me about Chico and Rita is that it’s been playing the festival circuit and commercially overseas since 2010, and yet it took the better part of two years to finally open in the States (i.e., today). The other thing is that it feels a little bit odd that an adult animated film is being distributed by GKIDS Luma Films, which has an association with kiddie movies. GKIDS president, Eric Beckman, runs the New York International Children’s Film Festival.
I spoke to Beckman about this a couple of days ago, and he said this is why he added the name “Luma” to the company title — it signals a separate interest and attitude.
“We didn’t pick up Chico and Rita until recently,” Beckman said. “We saw it at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival. We chased the damn thing for a year, talking mainly to Cinetic, holder of US rights, and getting nowhere. We finally just called producers of the film directly and we had a deal signed in two weeks. That occured last September, or five months ago.”
Chico and Rita opens today at the Angelika on Houston Street and then on March 9th in Los Angeles.
“I love films that take chances,” Beckman said, “and so far Chico and Rita seems to be playing really well with general audiences. It’s not a little kids’ film, and the music is amazing and it’s a big epic thing, spanning 60 years…it has a lot in common with The Artist and old MGM musicals.”
Let’s hear it for Cuban cartoon characters who play music and smoke cigarettes and get rousted by the cops and walk the sad streets and endure the loneliness and all that other classic adult stuff. Because it doesn’t happen often enough.