‘Chico & Rita’: Warm jazz

February 10, 2012


The pickings among American animated features are so slim this year that they’ve allowed foreign-language animated films to slip into the category. But unlike American animated films, these aren’t kiddie cartoons.

Instead, they’re adult works of cinematic art like “Chico & Rita,” a love story that covers decades and continents, telling a distilled version of the 20th century history of jazz in about 90 minutes.

Or at least one strand of jazz history. But that strand touches on everyone from Woody Herman to Cuban legend Chano Pozo to Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk.

At the center of the story is a pianist, Chico, and a singer, Rita. When they meet in Havana in 1948, Rita is a singer with another band; Chico lures her to his side by filling in for a sick pianist for a Woody Herman performance at Havana’s hottest club.

But Chico is a player – and Rita is a climber, someone ready to hop on the next rocket that will take her to New York, Hollywood and beyond. She even tries to take Chico along with her – but he chooses that moment to get drunkenly jealous of her career-advancing flirtation with a visiting impresario.

The story hops forward in time, following Chico as he becomes the go-to pianist for Cuba’s biggest touring musical artists until his path crosses Rita’s in New York. But it takes longer still – and political comeuppances for both artists – before they eventually catch up with each other at the right time.

The plot is easy-going and almost minimal, the backdrop to their musical fantasies coming true. They are like sidemen to the history happening in front of them, until those moments when history hauls off and slaps them down.

The music – a blend of bebop, Afro-Cuban and cool jazz – carries this film along, giving it wings even when there’s not a lot of story happening. But make no mistake: This is a movie for adults, a story of love and passion and human weakness, told over several decades.

It’s got a look that’s part tropical, part New York graphic-design, as though filmmakers Tono Errando, Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal had animated drawings by Milton Glaser. There’s a fluid quality to the hand-drawn images that gives off a surprising warmth.

“Chico & Rita” is like a graphic novel of a romantic drama, set to music that entices and inspires. It’s the grown-up choice to win this year’s Oscar for animated feature.

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