Bouncing between Cuba’s Tropicana nightclub and New York’s landmark jazz joints in the 1940s and ’50s, the animated musical Chico & Rita is an intoxicating charmer. A world-class collaboration between a filmmaker (Spain’s Fernando Trueba), two artists (designer Javier Mariscal and animator Tono Errando) and a musician (Cuban pianist/bandleader Bebo Valdés), the film melds dazzling visuals and a wildly infectious score into a simple yet affecting love story, written by Trueba and Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, that plays as homage to the dreamy Hollywood romances of the era.
Chico (voiced by Emar Xor Oña), a piano player in 1948 Havana, instantly longs for the sultry Rita (voiced by Limara Meneses and sung by Idania Valdés) the moment he hears her crooning at a cabaret. They instantly discover they make make a terrific duo onstage and off (this is the rare cartoon intended strictly for adult sensibilities, with some surprisingly sexy scenes not suitable for children). But a jealous mistress and an enterprising American producer get in the way, and the pair suffers the first of many separations when Rita suddenly leaves Cuba to become a singer in New York.
The first 30 minutes of Chico & Rita, which one of this year’s nominees for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, achieve a giddy high the rest of the movie can never match. But the filmmakers never stop trying. Mariscal’s eye-popping cityscapes of a bustling, neon-lit Havana convey the thrill of the once-vibrant city through a nostalgic haze. His simple yet surprisingly expressive character designs are brought to affecting life by Errando, and Trueba’s penchant for writing telling details and relatable emotions draw you into the stop-and-start romance. In New York (introduced via a blast of stylish, impressionistic animation), real-life jazz legends such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker make cameo appearances, while percussionist Chano Pozo briefly takes over the movie before coming to his violent, untimely end.
Later, the action turns to golden age Hollywood, bohemian Paris and glitzy Las Vegas, each setting presenting new hurdles for Chico and Rita to overcome. Underpinning the whole confection is Valdés’ joyful, catchy score, which runs the gamut of jazz styles and is destined to turn many casual listeners into instant hardcore fans of the form. Chico & Rita makes you fall hard for music, as hard as the protagonists fall for each other, and the movie is decent enough to give its lovebirds the tender finale they deserve.
Voices: Limara Meneses, Emar Xor Oña, Mario Guerra.
Directors: Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, Tono Errando.
Screenwriters: Fernando Trueba, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón.
Producers: Cristina Huete, Santi Errando, Martin Pope, Michael Rose.
Running time: 92 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, drug use, adult themes. In Spanish with English subtitles. Opens Friday March 16 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.