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.
Too bad Chico and Rita are less fully endowed characters than well-animated embodiments of the character traits Hollywood ascribes to Cubans. He's a good-hearted philanderer, she's an apple-bottomed songstress brimming over with passion and passionate anger, and both are veritable cardboard cutouts. There are times when that exceptional Valdés score combines with the images to create a perfect bit of atmosphere, such as the way a seductive murmur flows from Rita's mouth the first time Chico sees her and then seems to entrance him, to physically pull him across the room toward her. But the packed soundtrack, while grand, becomes just more of the surface-level atmosphere already in excess.
The animation, though technically fantastic, eventually comes to reflect the superficiality of the narrative. Chico & Rita's '50s Cuba thrums with the big-band jazz of the era but feels cool and crisp, with no hint of the humid, sultry atmosphere one would think a lifelong love like Chico and Rita's would emerge from. Cuba, New York, and Las Vegas look, on the surface, like their respective real-world counterparts — but never feel like them. The simple story of Chico and Rita's love, already shallow in its telling, ends up playing out over a series of attractive but vacant still lifes.