[EDITOR'S NOTE: Fearless Sarah D. Bunting of Tomatonation.com is making it her mission to watch every single film nominated for an Oscar before the Academy Awards Ceremony on February 26, 2012. She is calling this journey her Oscars Death Race. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here.]
I wish I had seen what other reviewers did in Chico & Rita. The word "dazzling" keeps coming up, but I was not dazzled. …Well, not by the film, whose plot is the old "boy meets girl / girl gets in naked catfight with other girl / boy wins girl back / girl leaves for New York / boy gets deported" tale of star-crossed musicians in a bygone era.
The music is amazing, though, and Chico & Rita might have worked better without Chico and Rita, or at least without their overly adagio romantic ups and downs. Something more collagey, vignettes of '40s Cuba and the '50s jazz scene in New York, the various other bits and cross-sections the animation does well — the vintage fonts, and a sequence where Chico follows Rita's bus — that would work better for the true heart of the story, the music and the songs. Instead, it uses a traditional romantic arc it doesn't need, that isn't served very well by the characters as written; Chico is ineffectual, mostly, and the darker currents hinted at in Rita's offscreen existence never get explored, so she comes off as kind of a bitch. (The pair's voice acting, by Eman Xor Oña and Limara Meneses respectively, is fine.)
The soundtrack is great, the sound design is great; the animation is imperfect, but in an improvisational way that works for the subject matter. The love story and its attendant subplots merely pull focus and slow things down.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.