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'Chico & Rita': A sexy animated film for grown-ups

March 8, 2012 |  6:00 am

Chico & Rita

In one sultry scene in “Chico & Rita,” Rita, a zaftig Cuban singer, ambles nude across a modest Havana flat to join Chico, a talented young jazz player, at his piano. Soon professional opportunity and political circumstance will drive the lovers apart, but for the moment they enjoy a potent musical connection and a passionate tryst.

A mostly Spanish-language drama that opens in Los Angeles on Friday, “Chico & Rita” tackles mature subjects like sex, ambition and regret in a format Hollywood studios reserve for kid-friendly fare: animation.

“I always thought about it like a movie for grown-up people,” said Fernando Trueba, who co-directed “Chico & Rita” with the artist Javier Mariscal and Marsical’s brother, Tono Errando. “It’s a melodrama, it’s a movie about jazz, about Cuban music with some political reference even. It’s not for children.”

In a surprise, both to its filmmakers and to the animation industry, the $13-million, primarily hand-drawn “Chico & Rita” beat out big-budget films like Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin” and Pixar’s “Cars 2” to secure an Academy Award nomination for animated feature this year. “Chico & Rita” ultimately lost to Gore Verbinski’s talking lizard western, “Rango,” but thanks to the nomination, the unusual movie may have a better opportunity to find an audience.

“Many grown-ups go and see animation only when they have children, so that’s really a risk,” Trueba said in an interview last month at the Beverly Hills offices of Egeda, a nonprofit organization that facilitates relationships between the U.S. film industry and those of Spain and Latin America. “I like risk. I never run in my movies after the audience. You have to run after making the best movie you can and then the audience, they come sometimes, sometimes not.”

The Madrid-born director, whose bedroom farce “Belle Époque” won the foreign-language film Oscar in 1994, conceived of his first animated project as a way to join two of his passions: the colorful, expressive artwork of Mariscal, and the sensual rhythms of Latin jazz. Trueba had enlisted Mariscal to create posters for his 2000 documentary about Latin jazz, “Calle 54,” and was taken with the artist’s detailed, chromatic drawings of Havana.


While making “Calle 54” and subsequently producing three albums for the Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés, Trueba became close with many Cuban musicians in exile, whose often wistful stories he and his co-writer, Spanish novelist Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, drew upon for the screenplay of “Chico & Rita.”

“I learned to understand and appreciate Cuban music and culture and also the tragedy of Cuban people,” Trueba said. “I knew the stories .... So in the moment of writing, all the things come to you.”

Told in flashback, “Chico & Rita” spans several cities and decades, but the action ignites in Havana in 1948, when the city is a musical hot spot and Chico and Rita are young artists on the rise. Their careers take them to New York City, but an unfaithful Chico loses Rita to a slick American manager, and their lives tragically diverge.

In 2003, the filmmakers found a partner in an upstart London-based production company called Magic Light Pictures, which helped raise financing for the film from sources in Spain and Britain.

A handful of independently produced animated films intended for adult audiences have played art houses in the U.S. in the last decade or so — Richard Linklater’s philosophical 2001 drama “Waking Life”; the 2007 graphic novel adaptation about the Iranian revolution, “Persepolis”; and the 2008 documentary about the 1982 Lebanon war, “Waltz With Bashir.” But their box-office receipts pale compared with the computer-animated, family-oriented fare of studios like Pixar and DreamWorks Animation.

The notion that a film like “Chico & Rita” could have any commercial potential was a hard sell — and it didn’t help that Trueba rejected the idea of casting Latin stars and insisted on using little-known Cuban actors Limara Meneses and Eman Xor Oña to voice Rita and Chico, respectively. “I would have never believed a Spanish talking as a Cuban,” he said.

Trueba journeyed to Havana to shoot reference footage in 2007, and over the next three years, the movie was animated at more than 10 European animation houses and supervised from Mariscal’s studio in Barcelona.

In 2010, “Chico & Rita” played at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, where it caught the eye of Eric Beckman, the founder of a tiny New York company called GKIDS, which distributes independent animated films and produces the New York International Children’s Film Festival.

“The glorious backgrounds, the way the visual style and the music were so tightly linked and combined to tell what is really a unique story, this achy-heart, never quite resolving relationship between the two characters — I loved it,” said Beckman.

Beckman’s 5-year-old company is the U.S. distributor for both “Chico & Rita” and “A Cat in Paris,” another foreign animated film that became a surprise Oscar nominee this year.

“Animation for adults is well established in international festivals. But in the States, general audiences have not gotten used to the idea of animation for adults,” Beckman said. “Whether it’s animation for adults or kids, the idea of indie animation or auteur animation, as opposed to big studio animation, does have the potential to be a niche that can grow.”

GKIDS is marketing the movie with a special push to Latin audiences and jazz fans — the soundtrack, performed by Valdés, features music by Thelonious Monk, Cole Porter and Dizzy Gillespie.

Beckman said he opted not to have “Chico & Rita” rated by the Motion Picture Assn. of America for its limited release.

“We decided to skip that. I would have to go into a whole tirade about the MPAA. We’re not gonna be on 3,000 screens and I didn’t want to have to risk a rating that was inappropriately high,” Beckman said. “People have different ideas about what’s acceptable. I went to see ‘Dark Knight’ with my daughter when she was 13 or 14. I’m much more horrified by violence. I’d rather have them see animated people having a good time in bed than stabbing each other.”


Photos: Oscar hopefuls in animation

'Rango' wins animated feature Oscar

Complete L.A Times movies coverage

-- Rebecca Keegan

Photos: Two scenes from "Chico & Rita." Credit: GKIDS

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