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Originally published Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 3:00 PM

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Movie review

'Chico & Rita': Animated tale celebrates Cuban music — and love

A movie review of "Chico & Rita," one of the five Oscar finalists for 2011's best animated feature. This romantic celebration of Cuban music and culture focuses on the postwar affair between a piano player and a gifted singer. Not for kids.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

'Chico & Rita,' with the voices of Eman Xor Oña, Limara Meneses, Mario Guerra. Directed by Fernando Trueba, Tono Errando and Javier Mariscal, from a screenplay by Trueba and Ignacio Martinez de Pisón. 94 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains a cartoon sex scene, smoking, drugs, alcohol use). In English and Spanish, with English subtitles. Seven Gables.

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In the process of nominating "Chico & Rita" for the Oscar for best animated feature of 2011, the Motion Picture Academy rejected Pixar's "Cars 2," Aardman Animation's "Arthur Christmas" and Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin."

That tells you a lot about this wildly independent and mostly original cartoon about musicians in post-World War II Cuba. It's not part of a franchise, it was made with more passion than caution, and it didn't cost $100-million-plus to produce.

Which means it could turn out to be the underdog winner in this contest. Remarkably sexy for its genre (it's not for kids at all), it's nostalgic about a time and place that rarely gets treated on film ("Godfather II" touched on it), and it has an emotional pull that may catch you by surprise.

The tear-jerker plot is the only overly familiar aspect of the script, which begins in 1948 in Havana. But this is the kind of unabashedly romantic movie that endorses and celebrates the notion of love at first sight.

Chico is a gifted Cuban piano player. Rita is the golden-throated singer he falls for. They spar at first, playing hard-to-get with a teasing lilt, but they're clearly destined for each other. At the same time they're doomed, forever making hurtful decisions based on insufficient evidence.

The background score that keeps pulling them together includes Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein, "As Time Goes By," Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and several Cuban jazz legends. Music is everything to them, which is one reason why they can't stop running into each other as they travel from New York to Paris to Las Vegas.

It's in Vegas that Rita reaches her most despairing moment. Drunk, confused and certain that Chico has betrayed her (he's "merely" been deported), she launches into a career-wrecking nightclub speech attacking American hypocrisy and racism.

It's her finest hour, and her most crippling. At such moments, "Chico & Rita" transcends the cartoon genre and becomes something else.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

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