A scene from the Oscar-nominated animated film "Chico & Rita." (GKIDS )
Drawn with a moody artistry, shaded by its Cuban musical roots, "Chico & Rita" is a buttery rich animated tale of love, jazz, showbiz, fame and politics in the late '40s and early '50s that is as catchy as its tunes. This is definitely animation for grown-ups — its look is voluptuous, sexy and sultry; its Latin-inflected Dizzy Gillespie sound is seductive; and its story of young lovers whose passions are tested is timeless.
It all begins in Havana in the pre-Castro years when rich Americans jetted down for entertainment. Rita, a promising young singer with a smoky voice, and Chico, a piano man extraordinaire, are part of that scene, and it is where they meet. The rest of the story is an old one: A talented pair, passionately in love, they possess virtually no means yet still have the kind of big dreams that tend to tear people apart. Ones that mean leaving home, and sometimes each other, behind.
There are two journeys here: Rita is basically a shooting star, soon heading to New York alone with a record contract. Though her vocal chops get her there, her beauty soon has Hollywood calling. (Rita's songs are performed by Cuban singer Idania Valdés, the daughter of Buena Vista Social Club's percussionist Amadito Valdés, while her dialogue is by Limara Meneses.)
Chico is making a name for himself too. The New York club circuit is his ticket out of Cuba. Next there's a gig with Gillespie's band that takes him to Paris. What Chico and Rita feel for each other doesn't change but everything else does. Over the years their paths cross, the flame reignites, then something intervenes to pull them apart, including the ripple effect of Castro's takeover. And so it goes.
That love and politics get tangled up is typical of Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba, who is the anchor of this project. Twenty years ago, his film "The Age of Beauty" played with the idea, won the 1994 foreign language Oscar and introduced many of us to Penelope Cruz. Indeed "Chico & Rita" is basically part of a collection of Trueba's favorite things, troubled romances and bluesy jazz chief among them.
Acclaimed Spanish designer Javier Mariscal, who directed "Chico & Rita" with Trueba and Tono Errando, created the film's bold modern look. Cuban musician Bebo Valdés, one of the featured players in Trueba's 2000 documentary on Latin jazz "Calle 54," handled the music, scoring and composing. He also stepped in to perform Chico's musical numbers (Emar Xor Oña handles dialogue).
Though you might worry that the animation would dilute the emotional sizzle so critical to a story of romance, it actually does the opposite. Mariscal's designs prove remarkably expressive — eyes that snap with anger, melt with love; Chico and Rita's bodies — whether performing in public or locked in private embrace — speak in a language that anyone can understand.
Mariscal uses the color palette to set the mood as the star-crossed pair make their way through various cities: Havana is rich with strong colors on an earthy background, New York is monochromatic, Paris is almost as gray, Hollywood is dry and desert bright, Las Vegas awash in neon and night. The character style finds its strength in minimal bold strokes, refreshingly different from the dense detail and precision of most big animation projects. Everything pulsates, from the cities sketched out like line drawings in the background, to the characters, with Rita in particular moving like liquid across the screen.
The music, which is really one of the stars of this film, captures the vibrancy of old cuts from Gillespie, Cole Porter and Thelonious Monk, among others. It truly works to transport you to another place, another time where it was OK for smoke to hang in the air. Written by Trueba and Ignacio Martinez de Pisón, the narrative tries to pack a lot in with its politics and the price of fame at times getting in the way of the romance. Too much at times, and as Chico and Rita's story moves into their later years, the film begins to lose its edge.
That the film is turning up in theaters now is thanks in part to an Oscar nomination for feature animation. But mostly it is there because Chico and Rita are a pretty irresistible pair, and life's ups and downs are infinitely better when they are rendered by Mariscal and set to a Latin jazz rhythm by Bebo Valdés.