‘Chico & Rita’ riffs on Cuban jazz culture as animation for adults

  • Wed Feb 22nd, 2012 5:23pm
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

Animated films have been geared to kids for so long it’s a surprise to see a full-length cartoon designed strictly for adults. We’ve got a good one in “Chico &Rita,” one of the five nominated films for the best animated feature Oscar.

The setting for this Spanish-British production is 1950s Havana, before the Cuban revolution, presented here as a wide-open cauldron of jazz music and clashing cultures. There’s also a present-day framing story, about a musician who looks back on his wild life in those days.

He is Chico (voiced by Eman Xor Ona), a piano player. In a sultry nightclub in 1948, he becomes transfixed by Rita (Limara Meneses), a bombshell singer with attitude.

They get together, briefly. Of course they’re meant to be together, but in a movie like this circumstances constantly get in the way of romantic success, even as they cross each other’s paths through the years.

The paths include excursions to the New York jazz scene (including animated cameos from Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk) and the young hotspot of Las Vegas, where Rita’s rising star carries her for an ill-advised engagement.

The story is not complicated or deep. In fact, it’s a little reminiscent of “The Artist,” another novelty film; neither movie strays far from the simplest outline of showbiz ups and downs, but we become interested because of the offbeat presentation.

In “Chico &Rita,” the appeal is the lush visual style, which doesn’t skimp on a healthy amount of nudity. Adding to the sensual spirit is the soundtrack, which is full of rich Cuban music along with some jazz classics.

The soundtrack is by Bebo Valdes, a nonagenarian, Grammy-winning Cuban musician whose life apparently served as the inspiration for some parts of this movie. (The sappy ending is strictly from a screenwriter’s head, however.)

“Chico &Rita” is co-directed by Fernando Treuba, Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando.

Treuba is the Spanish filmmaker who took home an Oscar 20 years ago for “Belle Epoque,” one of the weaker winners of the foreign language Oscar. Mariscal is a celebrated designer and artist, whose visual scheme is responsible for the movie’s wonderful line-drawn look (banish all thoughts of the slickness of most computer-generated movies).

That alone makes “Chico &Rita” a pleasant diversion from the usual fare. I think it might be enough to snag it the Oscar, too, if the voters are in an adventurous mood.

“Chico &Rita” (3 stars)

An animated feature for grown-ups, arranged around a somewhat unlikely love story in 1950s Cuba, where a jazz pianist and a singer pretend they’re not meant for each other. It’s not deep, but the lush drawings and the lively music make this a pleasant diversion. In Spanish, with English subtitles.

Rated: Not rated; probably R for nudity, subject matter.

Showing: Seven Gables.