The year is 1948 and the place is Havana, Cuba. If you are a party person in the forties or early fifties, and you have some money, and if you were white, this was the place to be. We zoom in on a couple of Afro-Cubans in Chico (voiced by Eman Xor Ona) and his best friend Ramon (Mario Guerrro) as they party the night away with a couple of Yankee lasses looking for a good time. Then at one local cantina Chico hears her voice, the one belonging to the lovely Rita Martinez (Limara Meneses) and Chico, a virtuoso piano player in his own right, is immediately in love. Rita tries to play her new paramour off, but she knows what's up. They ditch their dates, engage in a mad car chase, have a musical sparring session between vocalist and pianist, play a little love chase game and the next thing you know Chico and Rita are having breakfast in the morning. Boy finds girl and they live happily ever after. Of course we know this won't be the case or we will have a ten minute movie, plus we are fully aware the Fidel Castro is in the jungles somewhere during this time plotting to clean this mess up, and most importantly we wouldn't hear the wonderful compositions Bebo Valdez provided for this Oscar contending animated film 'Chico and Rita'.
The problems for Chico and Rita begin almost immediately after that first night, since it seems Chico is a bit of a rogue when it comes to the ladies. Rita is not pleased. Boy loses girl. But she does have the voice of a siren and while their personal relationship is strained, professionally they were made for each other which appears to fix everything. Boy gets girl back.
Now Chico and Rita and doing just swell. Chico has an orchestra, Rita sings the songs, they are in love and they are successful. Then the Big Player Mr. Cohen shows up with the big offer. Problem is this offer to go to New York doesn't include Chico. This is not acceptable to Rita. Chico, unfortunately, isn't the brightest bulb in the box and didn't hear that part of the conversation between the two, and one mixup later, Rita is on a boat to New York City and Chico is left alone. Boy loses girl yet again.
But this time the boy is determined to get his girl back so he and his buddy Ramon hop on the first frigate out to New York City but everything has changed. The girl doesn't
want the boy anymore, she's not even Rita Martinez anymore but rechristened Rita LaBelle, and Rita LaBelle is big star with little time for a slow witted piano player who specializes in breaking her heart, and life goes on as Chico and Rita go their separate ways.
But we are told that the heart wants what the heart wants and despite their disagreements, heartache and heartbreak, the boy just might get the girl back even though external forces don't want to see the boy and the girl get back together. When the movie started Chico was all alone in present day Castro's Cuba shining shoes so it looks like these external forces won. But did they?
With a trio of directors in Tono Errando, Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba... kind of curious how the delegation of duties works with three directors... I'm thinking that 'Chico and Rita' is pretty easy to sum up for anyone wishing to see this film. If you have a love of jazz music, and not just Latin jazz though it clearly dominates the musical landscape of this film, and don't mind the somewhat rudimentary character animation, you will no doubt find 'Chico and Rita' to be a complete and utter joy.
The magic of this film starts and ends with its music, which shouldn't be surprising since for all intent and purposes 'Chico and Rita' is a musical. The music sets the mood for whatever our characters or going through, be it sexy, danger, betrayal, excitement, and the trio of directors sets the mood for the emotions of this film almost flawlessly. And not only is the mood catered to by the music, but the styles of the music that we are blessed to listen to throughout the entirety of the running time of this movie is just as aurally pleasing. Then we are also treated to a little history lesson as legends of the genre pop in and out of this film performing musical numbers such as Charlie Parker, Tito Puente, and Nat King Cole just to name a few. In this aspect, in regards to the music and the homage laid at the feet of the various musicians who played this music, you would be hard pressed to find a similar film that will bring you more pleasure.
The animation style chosen is kind of odd in that the characters are simply rendered and lightly detailed, I mean we've seen more extravagant character animation in episodic Japanese Anime or on modern Saturday morning television, but the backgrounds these simply animated characters exist in, such as the buildings they live in, the cars they drive, the clubs they play in and the city landscapes are fully detailed and very rich. Maybe this was done on purpose, sending a message to the audience on class division... I know we’re reaching here... but you know how artists can be.
The story supporting our great music, detailed environments and simple characters was fairly typical for a 1940's styled, melodramatic tale of love lost, featuring characters who spend a lot of time getting in their own way, one saturated with overwrought melodrama, duplicitous people doing duplicitous things and all of the trappings and failings that comes with a story of this style. It's not a great story, or even a great love story, but if fits. If I had one complaint it would be that directors didn't do a very good job of illustrating the passage of time for their characters as the events they were going through often felt as if it were occurring over a couple of days when we know these events transpired over several years.
But as we mentioned before, the star of 'Chico and Rita' is the music, and it’s a star that shines very brightly. The story is a good one, but what makes this animated feature a must-see is the flawless presentation of a style of music that is as timeless as two people falling in and out of love.