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'Chico & Rita' are an animated couple

"Chico and Rita," directed by Tono Errando, Javier Mariscal. In theaters on February 10, 2012. Credit: Magic Light Pictures

A memory play and a musical confection, "Chico & Rita" is that rare thing, a cartoon for adults, with a bittersweet take on love and fate and a romantic's view of the night.

It kicks off in Castro's ruined Cuba and transports the viewer back to the jazz-and-rum-infused Havana of 1949, where Chico (voice of Emar Xor Ona), an unknown club pianist, meets Rita (Limara Meneses; sung by Idania Valdes), an extraordinary singer with a short fuse. They can't live with or without each other. Their dance of destiny seems a pure reflection of the music that the film's directors -- Fernando Trueba ("Belle Epoque"), Javier Mariscal and Tony Errando -- borrow and celebrate: Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente and venerable Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes, who scored the film.

Some will find a kinship between the Oscar-nominated "Chico & Rita" and the French animation "The Triplettes of Belleville," which also relied heavily on its score, but "Chico" has a distinctive style of its own. The preparation for the animation included a four-week shoot with live actors, which was used to inform the drawings, as was the happy discovery of a treasure trove of period photographs commissioned by the Havana city government of 1949.

It's a clever film. "Who's the guy in the hat?" someone asks (it's an unnamed Monk at the piano) and mini-dramas play out, such as one featuring the great percussionist Chano Pozo and a reefer deal gone bad. Between the historical mischief and the beautiful, evocative animation, "Chico & Rita" is an immersive experience -- musically, visually and emotionally.

PLOT Star-crossed lovers in 1949 Havana chase their musical dreams -- and each other -- from Cuba to New York. Unrated

CAST Voices of Limara Meneses, Emar Xor Ona, Mario Guerra


PLAYING AT Sag Harbor Cinema

BOTTOM LINE Magical, musical and sophisticated animation for adults. (In Spanish, with English subtitles)

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