"Chico & Rita," a Spanish film heavily spiced by the world of Cuban jazz circa 1950, is far removed from the "cartoon" kid movies Americans think of when they hear the term animation.
This is definitely animation for adults, and it snagged an Oscar nomination earlier this year.
Its hand-drawn images, essentially simple line drawings, are high art in their use of shadow and light. They're more complex than initially meets the eye, and they offer something not entirely definable that digital animation can't.
Its classic star-crossed love story that stretches over six decades is both captivating and quite moving. Including sex scenes with nudity, it may be the most sensually infused animated film this reviewer has yet seen.
And the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Woody Herman and more is a real treat for the ears, whether you're a sophisticated fan of jazz or not.
The story begins in Havana. An old shoe shiner ends his day alone in a squalid apartment, staring into the bottom of a glass as he turns over the distant past. A flashback takes us to 1948 Cuba.
Chico is an ambitious and talented jazz pianist whose impulsiveness holds back his dreams of conquering the New York scene. He has a roving eye.
Rita is a beautiful jazz vocalist with an attitude. She can't decide between Latin musicians like Chico and wealthy white deal-makers who want to exploit the hot sound for the dough it can make them.
Watching their initial meeting in a night spot, in which Chico and Rita dance around each other like a couple of birds in a mating ritual, you sense the heat wave — and the storm — that are waiting to play themselves out.
They end up in a talent competition, in which she sings to his piano playing, and the magic they create together propels them both professionally and romantically.
But Chico, no matter how smitten, is a "love the one you're with" kind of guy.
The on-again, off-again affair stretches from Havana to New York City, Paris, Hollywood and Las Vegas. Chico cheats once too often, Rita lets an oily handler named Ron shape her career but rebels, and it's too bad. The only time they're both performing their best music is when they're together.
Which is not much of the time.
The directors have obviously paid attention to getting the period details of the jazz scene right, as well as and the ethereal atmosphere of these famous cities. And the story, though bordering on opera in its dramatic angst, is surprisingly effective in how much it can make you feel for characters that exist only on paper.
For lovers of jazz and visual art, this is a slam-dunk. And it works pretty well as straight romantic storytelling too.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1269, firstname.lastname@example.org