Think of “Chico and Rita” as a test, one that gauges whether your love of Cuban jazz can exceed your threshold for lousy animation — a real “good tunes/bad toons” quandary. Working from a screenplay that would have made a perfectly charming live-action movie, Spanish co-directors Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando interpret a wild, 60-year romance via an unflattering style, like a children’s coloring book with its rudimentary line drawings and stiff, expressionless characters. Still, the result is evocative enough of late-’40s Havana, and the sweaty, sensual music of the time, to find a modest, yet dedicated following.
Chico (voiced by Emar Xor Ona) and Rita (Limara Meneses, but sung by Idania Valdes) are musicians. He plays the piano, she sings. Together they make sweet music and spicy love. However, being Cuban, Chico’s life has a way of getting complicated in the romance department. He may be thunderstruck by his first sight of Rita (he sees her crooning at a small dance club, then manages to win her over by tickling the ivories at the Tropicana that same night), but he can’t seem to keep his other mistresses from getting in the way, and so, despite pairing up just long enough to win a radio contest, the two never quite get the chance to be a couple.
Instead, the near-miss magnetism sustains their passion across six decades, taking the two musicians from pre-Castro Cuba to Gotham, Paris, Hollywood and Vegas, with both characters making impulsive, irrational decisions along the way. What the pic needs, but lacks, is a glimpse of behavioral detail that would bring these characters to life (the way, in “Ponyo,” Toshi’s mother is surprised by a foaming beer) or suggest that the world continues on beyond the frame (as in “The Illusionist,” when offscreen elements elbow their way into scene).
One could argue that denying auds such distractions puts the focus on the music, where it belongs, but then, so would simply releasing a CD, and Trueba has his Calle 54 Records label for that. No, the characters do matter here, so it’s a shame they feel so incomplete, upstaged by the cities and clubs that surround them — despite the fact the helmers recorded live-action reference footage to inform the animation, which moves with a slow-motion listlessness, the way things did in Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life.”
As for the music, Trueba knows his stuff, blending old songs (Rita covers Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale”) with new music conceived in the fashion of the era. Cuban jazz legend Bebo Valdes plays Chico’s part on piano, pairing up at one point with Estrella Morente (as herself) for a special-treat duet. True jazz buffs will pick up on inside nods, including cameos by an animated Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as an entire subplot featuring the inglorious demise of Latin jazz man Chano Pozo. Soundtracks will almost certainly outsell the movie.