One of the more obscure films to pop into this year’s Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards was the Cuban-born cartoon Chico & Rita. (It lost out to the American-made Rango.) The roots of the film’s existence can be traced back to director Fernando Trueba (one of three directors credited on Chico & Rita). Trueba produced and directed the Latin jazz documentary Calle 54. It was on that watershed 2000 film that Trueba met legendary Cuban pianist/bandleader Bebo Valdés. Valdés provides the music as well as the loose biographical inspiration for Chico & Rita.
In modern-day, poverty-wracked Havana, we are introduced to aging shoeshine man Chico. Set adrift on memory bliss (and a few glasses of rum), Chico flashes back to his and his country’s heyday, the late ’40s. Back then, Chico (voiced by Eman Xor Oña) was a hotshot ladies’ man and an up-and-coming musician. One fateful night, out partying with his best friend Ramón and a couple of Yankee lasses, he spots curvy chanteuse Rita (Limara Meneses’ speaking voice and Idania Valdés’ singing voice) and is instantly smitten. Attracted on both a personal and professional level, the two fall into bed and eventually enter a radio talent competition. The talent competition leads to bigger and better things, but the romance is somewhat less successful.
Over the course of the next several decades, Chico and Rita cross paths many times along the bumpy road to love. Rita is swept off to New York City by a smooth-talking talent scout, where she quickly becomes the toast of the town. Chico and his pal Ramón eventually follow in her footsteps and are caught up themselves in the manic Afro-Cuban jazz craze of the ’50s. Along the way, their lives intertwine with those of various real-life musical personalities, including Woody Herman, Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo.
Chico & Rita plays out like a pulpy, old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama, with romantic declarations of love, angry bouts of jealousy and long periods of brokenhearted melancholy pulling our lovers together and tearing them apart. The iconic animation lends a vivid backdrop to all this tempestuous emotion. Much like the vintage work of adult animator Ralph Bakshi (Heavy Traffic or American Pop, certainly), Chico & Rita is gritty urban realism filled with spicy sex and occasional violence. This ain’t no cartoon for kids.
The simple, hand-drawn art style looks like ink sketches highlighted in watercolor. The lines are bold and clear. The colors are pastel and frequently complementary (except for Rita’s trademark yellow dress, which pops in nearly every scene). Animators occasionally employ a 3D-ish computer assist, which gives weight to the characters and depth to the backgrounds. (Particularly in a zippy car chase through the streets of Havana.) This is a worthy addition, as much of the film’s charm is wrapped up in its earthy period details.
Pre-Revolutionary Havana glows and mid-century Manhattan sparkles in washes of pale color. There are the swanky hotels, the seedy bars, the crowded nightclubs, the cramped tenements. Everything looks like some bebop-crazed jazz record cover by David Stone Martin—as well it should. Admittedly, however, those bold, expressive lines don’t give quite as much detail to the human beings. Some viewers might see this as an impediment to fully absorbing the passionate feelings at play here. Though, to be honest, the film’s predictably melodramatic script does more to keep the characters two-dimensional than the animation.
The best bet here is to surrender to it all. Give in to the syncopated rhythms of the rhumba and the seductive lyrics of the bolero. Turn yourself over to the punchy, tropical deco art style. Submit to the sultry tumult of cinematic emotions. Go ahead: Listen, look and fall in love.