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Chico & Rita hits a few wrong keys






DIRECTED BY Fernando Trueba & Javier Mariscal

STARS Limara Meneses, Eman Xor Ona

Rather than filling the Best Animated Feature Film roster with critical underachievers like Cars 2 and Gnomeo & Juliet, members of the Academy of Harvey Weinstein Arts and Sciences went international this year, pitting France's A Cat in Paris and Spain's Chico & Rita against three American blockbusters. While it's admittedly nice to see smaller-scale releases snatch a prize away from the heavily hyped Hollywood fare — as when Japan's Spirited Away copped this award over stateside snoozers like Treasure Planet and Lilo & Stitch — the truth is that eventual winner Rango did deserve the Oscar over fellow nominees Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots and, yes, even Chico & Rita (I haven't seen Cat, which has yet to play locally).

The allure of Chico & Rita is easy to peg: The soundtrack is potent, the images don't look as if they've been spit out of a computer, and the story is so simple that even those averse to subtitles won't have any trouble following along. Moving back and forth in time and locale, the story proper begins in 1948 Cuba, as the promising young piano player Chico (voiced by Eman Xor Ona) first spots the beautiful singer Rita (Kimara Meneses) and woos her both personally and professionally. He's certain that they can become a great musical team and find success in New York and beyond, but fate, as well as Chico's character flaws (he likes the ladies and the booze), insures that their careers will take different paths.

The animation is inventive and eye-popping everywhere except where it most matters: the design of the characters. While the backgrounds look superb, there's a lack of definition in human expressions; couple that with a screenplay so superficial that there's no tragic grandeur in the fact that these lovebirds are perpetually kept apart, and it's largely left to the excellent tunes on the soundtrack to provide any semblance of heartfelt emotion. Bebo Valdes (who also penned the film's score), Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie and Rocky Mount, N.C., native Thelonious Monk are among those represented, and they're the ones most responsible for jazzing up this joint.

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