This sexy, pulpy, very grown-up film is not your usual best animated feature material. Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal's Spanish-language Chico & Rita has nevertheless made it onto this year's Oscar shortlist alongside more traditional cartoon fare such as Kung Fu Panda 2 and Rango. And a welcome addition it is.
Told in flashbacks, the plot is driven by the tumultuous love affair between up and coming jazz pianist Chico (Eman Xor Ona), and Rita (Limara Meneses), the singer with honey-flecked vocals who steals his heart. It's Havana, 1948, Latin jazz is smoking hot, and rich, white Americans cruise in to make merry.
Until she meets Chico, Rita is following the money, playing escort at high-end clubs on good nights, and slumming it as a dime-a-dance girl on others. She pairs up with Chico to win a local talent show, then couples up with him for a night of passion, before Chico's girlfriend turns up to spoil the party.
And so goes their on-again off-again relationship, with misunderstandings and infidelities clouding their various career highs and lows – a journey that takes us through the New York and Paris jazz scenes at their most glamorous and exciting.
Unapologetically nostalgic, the movie harks back in tone and structure to the Hollywood musicals of the era – A Star Is Born; On the Town; Singin' in the Rain – powered by the (specially recorded) music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and other greats of the period.
The animation itself is fluid and improvisational, smartly reflecting the free-wheeling jazz score. Drawn in bold strokes, it's more naïve than naturalistic, stylistically designed to wrap the viewer in its heat and emotional drive. A decidedly adult affair, complete with sex scenes, the film is definitely not one for the whole family. It also doesn't flinch from the period's pervasive drug culture. Indeed, one true note included is the gunning down of Cuban drumming sensation Chano Pozo in his prime (he was part of Dizzy Gillespie's crew) over a dope deal.
While this homage by Oscar-winning filmmaker Trueba ( Belle epoque) and artists/animators Errando and Mariscal is truly lovely in many ways – the Hollywood-style montage detailing Chico and his buddy Ramon's arrival in the Big Apple, for example – it could have used stronger teeth in the storyline department. Chico and Rita are more archetypes than uniquely delineated characters; and the glimpses of politics and racism in pre-and post-revolution Cuba could have been more fully explored.
But these reservations aside, Chico & Rita is a real treat – an animated One from the Heart with a touch of Buena Vista Social Club thrown into the mix. For anyone who loves the romance of Golden-era Hollywood and the spicy sultriness of jazz, it's the perfect Valentine.
Chico & Rita
- Directed by Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando
- Written by Ignacio Martínez de Pisón and Fernando Trueba
- With the voices of Eman Xor Oña and Limara Meneses
- Classification: NA
- 3 stars