With its jubilant, colorfully expressionistic style enlivening an old-fashioned love story, the delightful "Chico & Rita" might not look out of place in a retrospective of classic MGM musicals, save for two details: It's neither American nor live action. Sporting a whopping three directors, this time-spanning Cuban tale of passion follows a pair of musically charged lovers as they come together and break apart over the course of several decades. An Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature, "Chico & Rita" would have taken center stage at the same awards show 50 years ago.
Today, it's a slight but touching exercise carried by brilliant visuals and a bouncy soundtrack that won't quit. Its two main directors, Fernando Trueba ("Belle Epoque") and noted designer Javier Mariscal (Tono Errando, Mariscal's brother and a comparative unknown, takes the third credit), team with musical composer Bebo Valdés for a dazzling historical backdrop–the Cuban jazz scene before and after the Cuban revolution, with a little American flavor in between–that props up a steamy chronicle of seduction.
"Chico & Rita" immediately establishes its grand atmosphere. As the movie opens in 1949, Cuban piano virtuoso Chico (voiced by Valdés) wows the sultry Rita (Idania Valdés) during an impromptu showcase of his talents at a classy bar. Their sultry night together marks the rare sight of nudity in today's still-limited plane of animated features. The directors adopt a traditional 2-D style, using character models resembling line drawings from the era that give Chico, Rita and the rest of their cohorts a full-bodied appearance. The approach nearly resembles rotoscoped animation, were it not for their simplistic facial expressions. But superficiality hardly matters in the luscious storybook world the filmmakers manage to create.
Less convincing is the overwhelming familiarity associated with the Chico and Rita's courtship, as well as its inevitable complications. The morning after their first night together, Rita learns about Chico's philandering nature and initially turns her back on him, leading to a charming bout of exposition that finds Chico tracking Rita down to her neighborhood and proving his devotion with ample wit ("I'd kiss the ground you walk on if you lived in a cleaner neighborhood," he tells her.) Before long, the duo launch a promising musical career that runs into a wall when greed and jealously enters their relationship. From there, "Chico & Rita" spans the globe, as Rita runs off to America with a wealthy American businessman and takes her career to new heights while Chico desperately follows her trail.
Latching onto this basic formula with a warm hug, "Chico & Rita" begs comparison to another nostalgia trip gaining Oscar season momentum, Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist," which evocatively recalls the silent era while examining the impact of progress on its immaculate quality. In "The Artist," sound technology threatens to devalue the leading man's skills; with "Chico & Rita," the spell gets broken when the pianist returns home to find that the audience for bebop has faded in the cloud of revolutionary fervor. Both movies adhere to sentimental routine, leaning on the spirit of bygone days to lend their scenarios a cachet based in their nostalgia: They're entertaining, sweet and conceptually hollow.
Like "The Artist," "Chico & Rita" buries its narrative lulls with spectacular imagery, sometimes to overwhelming effect. When Chico travels to New York, the movie veers into an abstract, multicolored fever dream, gliding along on that energizing score. These moments that define the movie's power, rather than the gentle, uniformly uninteresting romance–which closely mirrors the way the upstart young starlet of "The Artist" rises up through the industry without losing touch with the debonaire man she met at the beginning of her trip. The spectacular reconciliation is set in place as soon as it becomes a possibility. Seen one, seen them all.
And yet, you've never seen anything like "Chico & Rita," simply because that jubilant palette and likeminded jazz soundtrack embraces its predictability with such vitality. The lush animated environment sustains each standard twist, resulting in the rare case of a movie that yearns for a time when a swooning period piece felt fresh. Looks can be deceiving; in the case of "Chico & Rita," they're a first-rate coup.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? While "Rango" is the clear favorite for the Oscar, "Chico & Rita," the most "adult" of the nominees, remains a dark horse in the race. It opens exclusively at New York's Angelika Film Center on Friday, where it's likely to do respectable business due to Oscar buzz and solid critical reception.