REVIEW: Chico & Rita Is Sultry, Seductive Old-School Animation, Set to a Latin Beat

Movieline Score: 9

We’ve come to the point where hand-drawn animation almost seems like a forgotten art, lost in the gaudy shuffle of motion-capture slickness a la The Adventures of Tintin and the sleek technical sophistication of pictures like Rango and Kung-Fu Panda 2. That’s why it’s such a glorious relief to greet the arrival of an old-school -– but very grown-up -- animated picture like Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando’s Chico & Rita, a romance that opens in late-1940s Cuba and uses a thumbnail history of midcentury Latin jazz as its backdrop.

It’s gorgeous to look at -- the images are stylized and detailed at once, as fluent in capturing the movement of human bodies as they are in portraying the luxe deco excitement of ‘50s Havana, New York and Las Vegas. And the story, sultry and bittersweet, is bracingly adult: This is the kind of sophisticated storytelling you rarely get even in live-action movies these days, full of unexpected turns and unruly human complications.

There is also, of course, the music, much of it performed by Cuban jazz pianist, bandleader and composer Bebo Valdés, whose own life provided the rough inspiration for the film. Chico & Rita is the story of aspiring jazz pianist Chico (voiced by Emar Xor Oña) who meets the woman of his dreams one evening in a Havana club. Rita (Limara Meneses) is a singer, and Chico falls hard both for her voice and for her knockout figure, but he comes on too strong for her liking -- she immediately brands him a country boy. Before long, though, they’ve tumbled into bed and into an on-again, off-again affair as well as a professional partnership. Together, with the help of Chico’s pal and manager, the charming, level-headed Ramón (Mario Guerra), they win a talent contest and embark on a blazing career as a duo, complete with a hit record. But Rita is lured away to New York with big dreams of success, and though she wants Chico to accompany her, a misunderstanding separates them. Chico eventually does make his way to New York on his own, where he slips into divey basement clubs to bask in the presence of his idols, people like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. (Their cartoon versions are wonderful and charmingly accurate, even if Parker is drawn playing a tenor and not an alto.) There, Chico also joins the ranks of other Latin artists like Chano Pozo and Machito, performers who made their way to New York and met with quick and explosive fame during the midcentury Latin jazz craze.

Chico and Rita’s careers occasionally intertwine, only to once again veer off into separate corners. The plot doesn’t follow the standard rags-to-riches template (though it wouldn’t be a liability if it did). Instead, the story -- the script is by Trueba and Ignacio Martinez de Pisón -- treads softly but boldly into unexpected places, touching upon, for example, the fast living and violent death of Chano Pozo, and giving some sense of what the Jim Crow laws of the pre-Civil Rights-era South meant for black jazz musicians. Trueba is the director of the 1992 Belle Epoch; he also made the 2000 Latin jazz documentary Calle 54, the development of which brought Valdés to his attention. (Like so many musicians of his generation -- and like so many from his culture -- Valdés had, by the 1990s, lapsed into obscurity: He was forced out of Cuba after the revolution and moved to Sweden, where, years later, he was rediscovered playing piano in a Stockholm restaurant.)

Calle 54 also marked the beginning of Trueba’s professional partnership with Spanish artist and graphic designer Mariscal. (Mariscal designed Cobi, the half-bear, half-possum mascot of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.) Together with animator Errando, Trueba and Mariscal worked out the look and feel of the film, reconstructing a vision of the vibrant, long-lost 1950s Havana (with the help of archival photographs kept by the city government) and re-creating a grayish, bustling ‘50s New York whose chief source of color is an aural one -- in the movie’s vision, it’s a place where the music flows from basement clubs like a life-giving river.

The music in Chico & Rita is just as vital as the visuals are: When Chico sits down at the piano, it’s Valdés’s notes that stream out, leaping and shimmering like trout in a stream. Idania Valdés (no relation to Bebo) provides Rita’s singing voice, luminous and smoky at once. The music that these characters make, separately and together, is as much a part of them as their own blood, and the drawing in Chico & Rita captures that essence: Just after their first meeting, Chico takes Rita to a bar that’s been closed for the evening and sits at the piano, ready to prove himself to her. She likes what she hears and begins to dance -- her yellow dress swirls around her legs, her swiveling hips. Chico keeps playing, but he can’t, of course, keep his eyes on the keys. How do you portray something as delicate as a sexual frisson in a cartoon? Somehow, Chico & Rita pulls it off. The picture has a seductive, casual eroticism.

Chico & Rita – which was released in Europe last year but is only just now appearing in the United States -- has been nominated for an Academy Award, in a category that has snubbed much more lavish features like Cars 2 and Rio; a recent Hollywood Reporter article suggested that we may be seeing a backlash against motion-capture and other kinds of computer animation. (Chico & Rita is mostly hand-drawn, though it does use some computer imaging.) There may be no need to draw such a stark dividing line in the sand: Computer animation certainly has its uses and benefits, and the spirit of any piece of animation depends so much on the guiding sensibility behind it, anyway. But Chico & Rita is organic and vital in a way that it might not be had it been fully composed on computer screens. There’s so much depth and warmth in both the story and in the drawing: This is animation that implies movement instead of merely showing it. It also keeps the spirit of this one particular branch of the jazz canon burning in its heart. Chico & Rita may, in its deceptive simplicity, be the wave of the future. At the very least, it’s something to be grateful for in the present, a picture that conjures new life out of old grooves.

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