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Review: Charming and atmospheric, “Chico & Rita” is a cartoon love story for adults

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Like the 1950s Hollywood musical that factors into its plot, “Chico & Rita” is a sweeping, lush, old-fashioned movie — the kind they don’t make any more. It’s also a rarity of another sort: an animated feature made for adults. In particular, it’s aimed at grown-ups who’ll appreciate the Afro-Cuban rhythms that saturate and drive the storyline. (The music alone is reason enough to check out “C&R.”)

Oscar-nominated for best animated feature (beating out Steven Spielberg’s “Tintin” and Pixar’s “Cars 2” for a slot in that category), the Spanish-made movie centers on the memories of a worn-down shoeshine man in Havana. Retiring for the night to his one-room apartment, he pours drinks into two glasses and clinks them. But he sips, and sleeps, alone.

The bulk of the film takes us to 1948 and the following decade. We return with this man, Chico, to his youth and the height of both his talent as a pianist and his fecklessness as a lover. Checking out a local nightclub (as opposed to lavish music palaces like the Tropicana, designed for gringo tourists), Chico and his pal and manager Ramon discover Rita, a vision in a saffron-golden dress bewitching the crowd with her silky voice.

In short order, Rita signs on as Chico’s musical partner — and, almost as quickly, his partner in the bedroom. (Though I doubt anyone needing such a warning would be reading this review, here it is: the movie contains some mild, cartoon-lady nudity.) A Latin spitfire à la Carmen Jones, who’s incapable of not dancing sensually at the first whisper of music, Rita comes close to cliché. But so do many other of the movie’s elements; there’s a comfortable sense of nostalgia for places, times and movie tropes of long ago, including that of star-crossed lovers destined against all odds and obstacles to come together.

 

 

Moving from Havana to New York City to Hollywood, “Chico & Rita” features animated cameos from Woody Herman, Charlie Parker, Chano Pozo, Nat King Cole and Tito Puente — and even Josephine Baker, Humphrey Bogart and Marlon Brando. A little like Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” it offers a surface-layer gloss on symbols of a certain culture and era. Also like that movie, this shallow approach doesn’t detract from the overall pleasure. And as it passes through the decades, “Chico & Rita” touches on the 1990s phenomenon of “rediscovered” Cuban musicians, best exemplified by the popularity of the Buena Vista Social Club.

The film is predominantly hand-penned, but I believe a small amount of computer-generated animation is used, just in the margins, as a mild sweetener. Either way, with its mixture of simple lines for characters and smart period detail in the backgrounds, it’s a visual treat. One of its three directors is Fernando Trueba, whose slight but sensuous film about Spain in the 1930s, “Belle Epoque,” won the Academy Award for best foreign film. His newest didn’t nab the Oscar for best animated feature; “Rango” did. But you don’t need a gold statue to have a fine, romantic evening in the company of “Chico & Rita.”

“Chico & Rita.” An animated feature directed by Tono Errando, Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba. In Spanish and English, with subtitles. Unrated. 94 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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