Pixar redefined the animation industry we grew up with, taking it from the simple, heartfelt drawings of Walt Disney to truly breathtaking portrayals of modernism that set a high standard for excellence. As Hollywood desperately rushed to keep up, traditional, hand-drawn animation was largely abandoned, replaced by the digital techniques Pixar pioneered.

Chico & Rita

At the Michigan
Gkids


In the wake of this revolution, it’s fascinating to see a movie like “Chico & Rita.” The film, co-directed by Spanish painter Javier Mariscal, showcases why drawings — composed and tied together by an artist’s hands— are some of the most powerful modes of expression. There is nothing terribly exciting about the story, a tale of a pianist and a singer who gradually develop a romance as they struggle to achieve stardom. What makes this film extraordinary is the sublime artistry by Mariscal and collaborators Tono Errando and Fernando Trueba (“Calle 54”), who bring the colorful landscapes of 1950s Cuba to jittery life.

It becomes clear from the get-go that this is not a film meant for children. The movie, told largely as a flashback, is suffused with small doses of nostalgia. The film’s moral weight is fixed around two protagonists who never really come off as loveable or amiable, at least not in the typical Disney sense.

Eventually, the duo does start to get on your nerves, but there’s always another wonderful Cuban jazz sequence by Bebo Valdes (“Calle 54”) waiting around the corner to convince you how much you love this movie. The music is nothing short of spellbinding. Everything about the guitar riffs and drum beats is strangely familiar, reminding audience members how sound really can dictate the mood and tone of a story.

Valdes’ composition is vibrant and hopeful at the beginning, eventually slowing down to a deep, introspective tenor as the movie approaches its skeptical ending. And that ending, which feels decidedly like a cheap cop-out, spoils what could have been a truly great film. Even though the ending never really seems out of place, it becomes too predictable. Everything in the story suggests that Chico and Rita — two hopeful artists who start out ready to face the world — would end up having to confront its cruelty. But somehow, all the color and music seemed to hint that it wouldn’t be so cut-and-dry.

As it turns out, the plot line really is as conventional as it seems. When all is said and done, the film ends up being nothing more or less than a brilliant treat for the senses. Even though it’s one of the best animated movies made in recent years, it just doesn’t have the soul of a movie like “Toy Story 3.” That Pixar classic not only managed to dazzle us with brilliant, relatable graphics, but it also had a poignant moral center which resounded with any audience member, making it more than just a great animated film.

If we’re lucky, this directing trio will give us another chance to embrace the beauty of Caribbean culture through the palette of animation. Next time, let’s hope they create a story worth telling.

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