The fluidly animated Chico & Rita is the sexiest, sultriest animated Oscar nominee ever. It's a passionate backstage love story between a late-1940s Havana nightclub singer and her faithless pianist. The relationship is frankly sexual, realistic, more emotionally violent than we expect cartoons to be.
The film is a mostly Spanish-language collaboration by writer/director Fernando Trueba (whose lusty comedy Belle Epoque won the 1993 foreign-language Oscar) and Spanish designer siblings Tono Errando and Javier Mariscal. The action plays out in painterly, visually idealized versions of Havana, New York, Las Vegas and Hollywood.
The look is mono-dimensional, sweet and gorgeous, but the story acknowledges dark issues of jealousy, drug addiction and racism. These cruel realities bang against the story's romantic arc, giving jolts of urgency and uncertainty to the film.
The film opens as pianist/tomcat Chico (voiced by Eman Xor Oña) and his buddy Ramón (Mario Guerra) show some pretty American tourists the highlights of Havana's swinging postwar jazz scene. The outing introduces Chico to gorgeous vocalist Rita (Limara Meneses).
There are the makings of a powerful relationship, although whether they are fated to be lovers, stage partners or enemies is a question that will take years to settle. Rita falls into Chico's bed quickly. Chico, who doesn't see himself as a one-woman man, loses Rita to America, where her manager guides her up the ladder of recording and film stardom. Chico and Ramón follow her north to a much less welcoming reception. Each character's personal allegiances shift drastically en route to a qualified happy ending.
Chico & Rita is an evocative tribute to a postwar United States: its prosperity, artistic vitality and can-do energy, and its racial segregation and political blacklisting. The soundtrack is mainly composed and performed by Grammy-winning Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés and features Cole Porter, Chano Pozo, Tito Puente, and George and Ira Gershwin. There are wonderful animated cameos from jazzmen Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, and delightful walk-ons from Marlon Brando and Humphrey Bogart. The film even intertwines its characters with the story of real-life Cuban instrumentalist Pozo, who was killed in a drug deal gone bad in a New York barroom in 1948. Chico and Ramón are at the scene of the crime and attend Pozo's touching funeral.
The film deftly balances such historical accuracy against expressive artistry, contrasting the dazzling, color-drenched New York of Chico's dreams with the monochrome winter landscape that greets him when he arrives. If animation is a family medium, here's one for the grownups who don't need their fantasies to be sanitized.