Rare is the animated film that is made for the grown-up, and “Chico & Rita” exemplifies that pleasure vibrantly. Both a star-crossed romance and an expression of love for music, this Spanish Oscar nominee with a Cuban story and a Hollywood ending is a sexy, jazzy double valentine.
Visual and sonic elements compensate for a deficiency of character shades in the collaboration between writer-director Fernando Trueba (“Belle Epoque”) and artist-designer Javier Mariscal.
Described as a cinematic bolero, the story follows two lovers united in passion but separated by misfortune. Their saga shares the spotlight with one of the most exhilarating developments in modern music: Cuban and New York jazz artists discovering and inspiring each other’s sound.
In late-1940s Havana, sad-eyed bebop pianist Chico (voiced by Emar Xor Ona) and sultry singer Rita (Limara Meneses) become lovers and music partners.
But then Chico’s ex-girlfriend makes a jealous scene and Rita takes up with an American promoter, among other obstacles. Pursuing fame and glory in New York, Las Vegas and Hollywood, the two, a few path-crossings aside, remain on separate courses.
The love story, which like “New York, New York” or “The Artist” involves a showbiz romance that blossoms and buckles over the years, is unextraordinary. In between some strikingly sensual early scenes and the sparkling closure, the drama goes nowhere special. Animated eyes can’t register emotion like a live actor’s can. Neither lover contains much dimension.
But other aspects of the animation, combined with the music, counterbalance those deficiencies. The result is a sexy, bright treat.
At once enchantingly retro and stirringly fresh, Mariscal’s hand-drawn cityscapes — tropically colored and tempered Havana and snowy, sophisticated skyscraper-filled Manhattan — are transporting.
The soundtrack contains new works by nonagenarian musician Bebo Valdes and selections by 20th-century giants.
As in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” the fictional protagonists enter a world filled with cultural icons — Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman and influential drummer Chano Pozo, among others. Much of the fun of this film is seeing such legends popping up in animated cameos.
Social and political themes, including racism in the U.S. and the suppression of freedoms in Castro’s Cuba, enrich the picture. We also get a fact-based murder and Bogie and Brando moments.
The ending is too romantic for credibility yet undeniably affecting, a testament to this imperfect but vital film’s ability to deliver magic.