Luna Films
Rita, voice of Limara Meneses, and Chico, voice of Eman Xor Oña, in "Chico & Rita."

"CHICO & RITA' — ★★★ — Limara Meneses and Eman Xor Ona; not rated but probable R (scenes of sex, nudity, violence and drug use); Broadway

The fluidly animated "Chico & Rita" is the sultriest animated Oscar nominee ever. It's a passionate backstage love story between a late 1940s Havana nightclub singer and her faithless pianist, told in terms easier to reconcile with a live-action movie. The relationship is frankly sexual, realistic, more emotionally violent than we expect cartoons to be.

The film is a mostly Spanish-language collaboration between writer/director Fernando Trueba ?(whose lusty comedy "Belle Epoque" won the 1993 foreign-language Oscar) and Spanish designer siblings Tono Errando and Javier Mariscal. The action plays out in painterly, visually idealized versions of Havana, New York City, Las Vegas and Hollywood. But while the look is mono-dimensional, sweet and gorgeous, the story acknowledges dark issues of jealousy, drug addiction and racism. These cruel realities bang against the story's romantic arc, giving jolts of urgency and uncertainty to the in love/out of love/in love again formula.

The film opens as piano-playing tomcat Chico (voiced by Eman ?Xor Ona) and his buddy Ramon (Mario Guerra) show some pretty American tourists the highlights of Havana's swinging postwar jazz scene. This outing also introduces Chico to the gorgeous vocalist Rita (Limara Meneses).

There are the makings of a powerful relationship here, though whether they are fated to be lovers, stage partners or enemies is a question that will take years to settle. Rita falls into Chico's bed quickly. Chico, who doesn't see himself as a one-woman man, loses Rita to America, where her manager guides the alluring singer up the ladder of recording and film stardom. Chico and Ramon follow her north to a much less welcoming reception.

"Chico & Rita" is an evocative tribute to postwar USA, from its prosperity, artistic vitality and can-do energy to the social problems of racial segregation and political blacklisting.

The soundtrack is mainly composed and performed by Grammy-winning Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes and also features the likes of Cole Porter, Chano Pozo, Tito Puente, and George & Ira Gershwin. There are wonderful animated cameos from such jazzmen as Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, and delightful walk-ons from Marlon Brando and Humphrey Bogart.

The film even intertwines its characters with the story of real-life Cuban instrumentalist Pozo, who was killed in a drug deal gone bad in a New York barroom in 1948. Chico and Ramon are at the scene of the crime and attend Pozo's touching funeral.

The film deftly balances this kind of historical accuracy against expressive artistry, contrasting the dazzling, color-drenched New York of Chico's dreams with the monochrome winter landscape that greets him when he arrives.

"Chico & Rita" is not rated but would probably receive an R for scenes of sex, nudity, violence and drug use; running time: 94 minutes.