Of the Oscar categories, the one for Animated Feature (occasionally known as the “Just Give It to Pixar Award”) is relatively new, having been established only a decade ago. Perhaps that accounts for its shyness: This is only the second year (after 2002, strangely) to have five, rather than three, nominees. Often, it seems like the Academy is struggling to fill even its modest roster, which explains nonclassic, would-be winners like Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and Surf’s Up. It’s as though the planet was starving for feature-length animated product—which, of course, it’s not.
A surprise nominee whose inclusion was widely read as a fuck-you to Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin, Chico & Rita, from Spain, has less in common with contenders like Rango and, uh, Puss in Boots and more with The Artist. Like that live action pastiche, it’s a moony ode to a bygone era that operates as a slender melodrama, and whose simplicity can be read as nostalgia for an era of storytelling that, of course, never really existed.
At least Chico & Rita offers more history than The Artist. Starting in 1949 Havana, the story plows through several decades in the lives of its titular heroes, respectively the country’s “hottest piano player” and a prostitute with not only a heart of gold but also a pair of pipes. Her sexy-breathy act leads her to fortunes in New York and Hollywood, while Chico contends with more modest work, including touring Europe with Dizzy Gillespie. Our central pair try to stay together, but the vagaries of history and film plotting more often keep them apart.
Directors Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba met when the former designed the abstract poster for the latter’s Latin jazz documentary Calle 54. The jazz-heavy Chico & Rita is this event’s belated by-product, although the majority of the film’s design, while colorful, is restrained, as though the filmmakers had simply animated the storyboards of a live-action version. (An expressionistic nightmare freakout montage halfway through is most welcome.) That’s fine, as its ambitions are modest, and tinged with a decidedly European sensibility, which is one way of saying there’s T&A. Like too many in this year’s Oscar race, Chico & Rita is too content to be nice, a quality as easy to overrate as it is to lowball.
No longer just the bathroom break during your annual Oscar party, the Academy Award nominated Short Films are available for viewing, and, once again, one must wonder if these are truly the best and brightest, or if they’re just whatever the voting committee discovered lying around somewhere.
Best Picture nominees tend to be a safe lot, although sometimes the Academy has sudden good taste. More often, such slips go in the other direction.
It would be foolish to make a generalization of a single, large country’s art, but Dimanche and Wild Life share qualities with much of Canada’s other animated output: they’re modest, quietly affecting toons. Neither adjective describes The Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which is crassly American in its heartstring tugs.