Like Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning “Midnight in Paris,” the stunningly beautiful “Chico & Rita” whisks us back in time to rub elbows with some of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century.
While watching the enchanting “Chico & Rita,” you can’t help lamenting that there are so few adult-themed animations striving to so vividly bring to life epic love stories set against the background of a bygone era when art, culture and history rapturously collide.
Like Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning “Midnight in Paris,” the stunningly beautiful “Chico & Rita” whisks us back in time to rub elbows with some of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century. But instead of literary titans like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, we make time with Cuban jazz greats like Tito Puente and Chano Pozo. The likes of Nat King Cole, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker also appear in animated form. It’s their music, though, that makes the picture. And what glorious jazz nuggets they are, each pristinely assembled by the film’s music director, Grammy-winner Bebo Valdes, himself a veteran of Cuba’s golden era of music in the late 1940s.
He also is the obvious inspiration for Chico (voiced by Emar Xor Ona), a Havana-based jazz piano virtuoso whose love of music is matched only by his impassioned love for Rita (Limira Meneses), a beautiful, golden-throated chanteuse he can’t keep his eyes or hands off. Musically, they are in perfect harmony. Romantically, the notes aren’t so sweet. In fact, the word “star crossed” was practically invented for them. No matter how hard they try to stay together, a succession of infidelities and misunderstandings always stand ready to tear them apart.
It’s a familiar tale told many times before, and as recently as “The Artist.” But directors Femando Trueba (an Oscar-winner for 1992’s “Belle Epoque”), Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando strive to make it fresh. They aren’t always successful, often failing to adequately flesh out their characters. But any shortcomings are quickly remedied by the nearly wall-to-wall music. It’s as much a feast for the ears as the hand-drawn animation is for the eyes.
The drawings, overseen by Mariscal, may seem simplistic on the surface, but they are as complex as any computer-animated flick in texture and scope, especially in the way they so richly evoke the mood and the styles of the 1940s and ‘50s. It’s not just limited to Havana, either, where much of the movie is set. We’re also swept away on a magic carpet ride to New York, Paris, Hollywood and Las Vegas. But the heart is Havana, which we see in its prime, when it was the Vegas of the East, and, sadly, in its depressing, austere days following Castro’s Revolution.
The film, which received a surprise Oscar nomination in January, is equally rich in subtext about politics, drug use and promiscuous sex, including scenes of full frontal nudity and couples partaking in the horizontal mambo. But what sticks with you is the strength and timelessness of love, which like a great piece of music transcends time and place to evolve into something truly magnificent.
CHICO & RITA (Not rated, but contains nudity, drug use and violence.) Featuring the voices of Limira Meneses and Emar Xor Ona. Directed by Femando Trueba, Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando. 3 stars out of 4.