It would have taken millions of dollars for a movie to recreate the look and feel of 1948 Havana -- the lively jazz clubs, the lavish casinos and hotels, the streets filled with bustling traffic.
"Chico & Rita" does it with a few pen strokes. Spanish directors Javier Mariscal, Fernando Trueba and Tono Errando have created a rare thing -- an animated film for adults that captures the pulsating vibe of its environment better than a live-action movie ever could.
The plot for the Oscar-nominated film is pretty thin -- a Cuban retread of "A Star Is Born" -- and the visual illustrations of the characters are so basic they're somewhat expressionless. The movie works better if you sink into its milieu, enjoying the jazzy color schemes, the fluid animation and, above all, a dynamite soundtrack.
We meet Chico (Eman Xor Ona) as an old shoeshiner in present-day Havana. Sitting alone in his apartment, his mind wanders back to pre-Castro Cuba, when the island was a cosmopolitan entertainment destination for international playboys and playgirls, bankrolled by American gangsters.
Chico is a hot young piano player with gifted fingers and a wandering eye for the ladies. He spies Rita (Limara Meneses) singing in an open-air club, and the two spend the night collaborating both musically and physically. In the morning, Chico's angry girlfriend shows up at the door, and Rita storms off in a huff.
It's the story of their lives -- together, they make magic, until Chico's ego or libido, or Rita's ambition, pulls them apart. Rita finds an agent and heads to New York, with stardom beckoning in Hollywood and Las Vegas, and Chico follows along a step behind.
The filmmakers want to conjure up a classic Hollywood romantic tragedy, in which two people fated to be with each other can't quite connect. But while the color and zippy animation (mostly two-dimensional, with a bit of 3D modeling for cars and landscapes) are terrific, the characters seem like flat, generic sketches. Even when Rita's career falls into alcoholic disrepair at the hands of her slick manager, she still looks pretty much the same as she did when she was young and happy.
But the soundtrack is terrific, and the filmmakers deftly work in cameos from the musical giants of the day -- Tito Puente, Woody Herman and Dizzy Gillespie among them -- to give the impression that Chico and Rita are walking among them, living in their time and making great music. As a visual evocation of the era, "Chico & Rita" is both visceral and wistful.
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