Film: Chico & Rita ****
(15A, limited release)
Published 19/11/2010 | 05:00
Despite the fact that it's an animation, Chico & Rita reminded me of nothing so much as those sweeping 40s Hollywood melodramas in which loves are lost and hearts broken against sumptuous city backdrops.
Chico & Rita is similarly absorbing, so much so in fact that, at times, you forget you're watching a cartoon and start rooting for the star-crossed lovers at its core.
The film's aesthetic was created by Spanish artist Javier Mariscal, then matched with a fantastic soundtrack by director Fernando Trueba, and our story begins in Havana in the late 40s.
At that point, the Caribbean nation was still a tourist playground for visiting Americans, and a vibrant, indigenous musical culture was being infected by jazz.
Chico is a handsome young piano player, whose talents chime perfectly with the arrival of Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie and bebop. He's something of a virtuoso, but spends most of his time in bar bands and running after women.
One night, though, he's out with his friend Ramon when he catches sight of a beautiful young female singer with a heavenly voice.
Rita's purr could charm the birds off the trees, and Chico falls madly in love with her. She's pretty keen on him too, until she finds out she's not his only girlfriend.
When she agrees to sing with him in a local competition, they win and have a minor hit in Cuba. But then an unscrupulous American agent spots Rita and offers her a recording contract on the spot. She leaves for New York and Chico follows her, but the fates will continue to conspire against them.
Chico & Rita's story sweeps across the decades, and Trueba tells it with aplomb. Mariscal's figures are elegant and impressionistic, with noses and other features often suggested by a single, sweeping line. It's a pleasure to watch them move and sway, and in Rita, Mariscal has created the sexiest animated woman since Jessica Rabbit.
The film floats along with seeming effortlessness, thanks in part to a magnificent soundtrack from Bebo Valdés, the veteran Cuban pianist and bandleader, whose extraordinary life could have served as the model for Chico's. The thought, care and constant attention to detail are what set Chico & Rita apart from the common run of animated features, and make it a joy to watch from start to finish.