Having seen 4 out of the 5 Best Animated Feature nominees from this past Academy Awards ceremony, I can now harp on the American bias with no reservations. Look, I really enjoyed “Rango” when I first watched it last year, but I now know that it can’t hold a candle to the two foreign language animated entries. But you try going up against Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski and the billions of dollars they lassoed for the industry with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. These little international(from Spain and France, respectively)gems never stood a chance. Also, who ever got to see the darn things? Both saw foreign release dates in a variety of countries as early as 2010! It wasn’t until this year, however, that these works saw legitimate U.S. releases: “Chico & Rita” in February followed by “A Cat in Paris” in June(although, in the case of the former, there was a brief qualifying run in L.A. in 2011–pinpointing these official North American release dates is often a Herculean task!). And both are gorgeous examples of the power of animation. This stuff is not merely artistic, but art. And you currently have the opportunity to catch up with them both on DVD.
“Chico & Rita” is a lovely romantic tale that does not shy away from a sinister side or from frank sexuality. There is plentiful nudity and violence present during its familiar story(what it lacks in narrative originality is more than made up for in style and hubris). Chico and Rita meet in their native Cuba in the late 1940’s, but we are first introduced to Chico some 60 years later in modern-day Havana. His flashback recollections supply the bulk of the narrative upon which we watch the two musical performers meet, make love, separate, reunite, squabble—then eventually head to New York to find fortune(Chico as a musician and Rita as a singer\actress). How they get there, what they achieve, and then ultimately where they end up may seem clichéd to some. But the beautifully drawn representations of 1940’s Havana & New York make it breathe like a brand new creation, despite the fact that real actors were used in the process only to be transformed into cartoon representation at a later date. And the writing and directing team headed by Fernando Trueba infuse the proceedings with incredible music and poignant performances. The passion is palpable and the journey is powerful and intense. Lastly, it has a perfectly lovely finale. “A Cat in Paris” is a noirish depiction of a seedy Parisian underworld involving deception, kidnappings and murder. Our heroine is Zoe, a seven-year-old girl with a pet black cat. Zoe’s parents are police officers, but we’re told that her father has been killed by a vicious gangster before the movie proper begins. Zoe’s cat has also been wandering off to have nightly adventures with one of our eventual heroes—an acrobatic black-clad burglar named Nico. All these lives are eventually touched by the brutal Victor Costa, and Zoe’s mother Jeanne is eventually called into play to direct them away from danger via misadventure. The sardonic and quirky style occasionally recalls the Tim Burton “Batman” films, and the Alain Gagnol script(he also co-directed with Jean-Loup Felicioli)punches up the gangster stuff with an obvious Tarantino-esque homage(neither of these films should be confused with kiddie-fare). Btw, I avoided the English-language dub option on this DVD, and selected the original French-speaking version with English subtitles. Don’t be enticed by showy Hollywood voices like Matthew Modine and Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden…enjoy “A Cat in Paris” as it was originally intended.
With only “Kung Fu Panda 2” left to experience from the group comprising the Best Animated Feature Oscar nominees, I’m going to go out on a limb and call “Chico & Rita” the best of the bunch, with “A Cat in Paris” coming in an admirable second(“Puss in Boots” being the cute, but also weakest entry among this field). The last time(and only time)an international entry grabbed this award was a decade ago when they honored the legendary Hayao Miyazaki for “Spirited Away”. Other than that, it’s usually Disney/Pixar. And, of course, that means that there is always an array of celebrity voices and boatloads of cash for the marketing campaign. It’s not even close to a level playing field. And while I certainly don’t expect these grown-up minded cartoons to gross a billion dollars at the box office like “Toy Story 3”, cinephiles should certainly enhance the breadth of their knowledge of the world of animation by discovering these works at home. I mean, who wants to take the bet against that come February a big, expensive, Disney-marketed feature takes the Oscar again? I didn’t think so. Grades: “Chico & Rita”: A “A Cat in Paris”: B+