An old-fashioned romance is invigorated by some cool music but weakened by mediocre animation in “Chico and Rita,” a tale of long-unrequited love told against the backdrop of Cuban history from the 1940s to the present. It’s a picture that goes down easily enough but leaves you feeling hungry for something more substantial.
Essentially the picture is about a long-delayed romance between pianist-composer Chico (voiced by Emar Xor Ona) and sultry, sassy singer Rita (Limara Meneses), who meet in Havana in the swinging 1940s and, after some hesitation on her part, become a couple onstage at the Tropicana and back in his flat. But when his womanizing gets in the way, she dumps him and goes off to New York, where she’ll hit it big and wind up a major star.
Chico comes to the US following the Castro revolution as well, but his initial experiences in the New York club scene prove alternately exhilarating and dangerous, and ultimately he’ll be deported on drug charges, due largely to the machinations of people anxious to keep him from interfering in Rita’s life. Unfortunately, her career goes into a nosedive when she takes a public stand against segregationist policies in the States.
The pair’s interlocked stories are told in flashback, from the perspective of the aged Chico, who’s rediscovered living a reclusive life in Cuba and brought back into the limelight by admirers of his old recordings. His new-found fame takes him on tour, and he eventually finds himself back in Las Vegas, where he was supposed to meet Rita decades earlier but was prevented by his arrest. Happily, she proves to have been as steadfast in her love as he was.
It’s not difficult to imagine a story like this having been made in a glossy Hollywood studio movie of the forties or fifties. The heart-on-sleeve romanticism, the hothouse entertainment milieu, the touch of social commentary, the “Affair to Remember” touch of love’s triumph—all of them fit in with the pattern a Selznick, Mayer or Zanuck might have green-lit. It all seems rather obvious and calculated, of course, but that’s part of the charm, and when you add the soundtrack, which mingles old songs with new tunes composed in period style by Bebo Baldes (and all played with feeling)—as well as historically-based references to jazz greats of the era that will appeal to buffs—“Chico and Rita” has a good deal going for it.
It’s a pity, then, that the story’s told in such a visually anemic format, using animation that looks like it was done with rotoscoping, whether or not that’s the case. Presumably the hope was to give a dreamlike, hallucinatory quality to the tale, but if so, the makers failed to achieve the intended effect. The images simply seem messy and indistinct, making connection with the characters we’re supposed to feel for difficult.
The result is a picture in which a perfectly agreeable exercise in musical nostalgia is undermined by the clumsiness of execution. “Chico and Rita” isn’t unpleasant, but it might have been more than that.