In the 11 years since the Oscars introduced an award for Best Animated Feature, the category has been dominated by children's movies, often with computer-animated pandas, penguins and ogres at their center. This year's a little different. Two of the animated films are subtitled, and one is definitely aimed at adults: the Spanish film Chico and Rita, an animated love story steeped in jazz.
Think Havana, 1946, rendered in pen and ink, vintage cars roaring down tropical streets that are all horizontals and a riot of color. A young jazz pianist named Chico hasn't got a gig tonight, so he's out on the town hitting the clubs. That's when he gets his first glimpse of Rita, sidling into a spotlight, closing her eyes and purring "Besame Mucho" into a mic.
Instantly smitten, Chico follows Rita to the Tropicana, where he gets to show off a bit himself when the band needs someone to sight-read Stravinsky. By evening's end, Chico and Rita have both ditched their dates, and they end up at his place, where the next morning she awakes to find him noodling at the piano. Could he maybe take that down a key, she wonders? And then she joins in ...
After a night of lovemaking, Chico will understandably be calling that new song "Rita." Is theirs a match made in heaven? Sure. Two young musicians, tropical breezes, sweet, sweet harmonies. But all of what we're seeing is part of an old man's flashback — to Cuba before the revolution — and if it seems too easy, it is. There's a knock at the door — an angry ex-girlfriend, the first of many interruptions in a romance that will take these two from Havana to New York and all over the world, sometimes together but more often apart.
Along the way they'll be present at the creation of some genuinely extraordinary music: mambo, batanga and always jazz. Writer-director Fernando Trueba based the film's story (very) loosely on the experiences of pianist and bandleader Bebo Valdes, who worked for years at Havana's Tropicana Club, and both played for and orchestrated songs for the likes of Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie and the many other jazz greats whose stylings grace the movie's soundtrack.
Now 93 years young, Valdez himself plays all of Chico's piano solos — both the ones created specifically for this film, and the ones in big-band arrangements he recorded years ago. Rita, who's sung by Idania Valdes, is a lovely creation, too — her animated DNA blending bits of the Cuban cabaret sensation Rita Montaner with more than a smidgen of Lena Horne.
Seen through Javier Mariscal's pen-and-ink drawings, their on-again, off-again romance is so nostalgically persuasive it feels almost iconic. As do the cities the film conjures — not just Havana through the decades, but New York as a forest of thrusting verticals, Vegas an explosion of animated neon.
The picture's real achievement though, is the warmth it brings to the music that animates the lives of these Afro-Cuban characters. Chico and Rita has enough adult subject matter — and even animated nudity — that it's definitely not for the young. But it's so passionate about the Latin and big-band music of the '40s, '50s and '60s that it'll make anyone who grew up listening to those vibrant rhythms feel like a kid again.