Movie Review - 'Chico & Rita' - An animated Oscar contender follows one on-and-off romance — and traces the development of some of the world's most infectious musical styles.


'Chico And Rita' And All That Jazz

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In the 11 years since the Oscars introduced an award for Best Animated Feature, the category has been dominated by children's movies. Think computer-animated pandas, penguins and ogres. This year, though, is a little different. Two of the animated films are subtitled, and one is definitely meant for adults.

Movie critic Bob Mondello says the Spanish film "Chico and Rita" is an animated love story steeped in jazz.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Havana, Cuba 1946, rendered in pen and ink, vintage cars roaring down tropical streets that are all horizontals and a riot of color. Chico, a young jazz pianist hasn't got a gig tonight, so he's out on the town hitting the clubs when he gets his first glimpse of Rita, sidling into a spotlight, closing her eyes and purring into a mic.


MONDELLO: Chico is instantly smitten and follows her to the Tropicana nightclub, where he gets to show off a bit himself when the band needs someone to sight-read a jazz composition by Igor Stravinsky.


MONDELLO: 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.


MONDELLO: Could he maybe take that down a key, she wonders. And then she joins in.


MONDELLO: After a night of lovemaking, Chico will understandably be calling this 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, Cuba before the revolution. And if it seems too easy...




MONDELLO: That interruption will be the first of many 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, la tanga and always jazz.

Writer-director Fernando Trueba based the film's story very loosely on the experiences of pianist and band leader, 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 soundtrack.


MONDELLO: Now, 93 years young, Bebo Valdes plays all of Chico's piano solos on the soundtrack, both the ones created specifically for this film and the ones in big band arrangements he recorded decades ago.

Rita, who's sung by Indania Valdes, is a lovely creation, too. Her animated DNA blending bits of the Cuban cabaret sensation, Rita Montener, with more than a smidgen of Lena Horne.


MONDELLO: 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, 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 kids, 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.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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