The Oscar-nominated animated musical Chico & Rita opens with a jaw-dropping swoop over modern-day Cuba, a well-grimed and bustling island of densely packed buildings that, here, is immaculately detailed and tinted just so as to make it beam even in squalor. Chico & Rita deserves credit for being the rare animated feature to target an adult audience, and it's nothing if not gorgeous — its simple, thick-lined characters pulsing with a sinuous sexuality in time to the swing and swagger of the Bebo Valdés soundtrack. Still, as director Fernando Trueba digs deeper into the romantic affairs of the titular couple, the lackluster plot and characters overpower the dazzling animation.
It's a simple story — a great love imposed upon by outside forces invariably conquers all — with simple characters, which is the film's biggest fault. Chico (Emar Xor Oña), a leggy jazz pianist with a talent for infidelity, and Rita (Limara Meneses), an alluring singer aiming for the big time, meet at a low-rent jazz bar in the booming days of 1950s Cuba. Sparks fly, musically and sexually. Sex turns into collaboration, and collaboration blooms into a star-crossed, jazz-fueled, decades-spanning romance that flits from Cuba to New York and beyond. Abundant with the gorgeous, period-savvy jazz composed by Valdés — the inspiration for both Chico and the film itself — Trueba's movie steps smoothly between each locale as Chico and Rita's love story is interwoven with the trials and tribulations of their rocky musical careers.