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The story of "Chico & Rita," a surprise Oscar nominee for Animated Feature, is simple, even simplistic at times. But the way Spanish directors Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal tell that story — with vibrant color, gorgeous line-drawn animation and an explosion of jazz music — makes it a delight for the eyes and ears.

The story begins in modern-day Havana, with an old shoeshine man, Chico (voiced by Emar Xor Oña), going through a box full of memories. Those mementos take him, and us, back to Cuba of 1948, when Chico was a young piano player getting gigs in Havana's hopping nightspots — and, on one night, filling in on piano for the touring Woody Herman Orchestra.

That gig is only the second-most momentous event of Chico's life that happens that night. Just before, he heard and was transfixed by the singing of Rita, a sultry jazz singer. He tries to charm her, but she's too cool for his line. Later, at the Tropicana where he gets the Woody Herman job, they meet again, and she abandons her date — a white sugar daddy — to party with Chico and his friends, and later to make love to Chico. (The sex scenes are depicted honestly, as in with animated nudity, so this is definitely not a kiddie cartoon.)

But Chico is a jazzman, and therefore not to be trusted. Rita learns this the hard way and soon leaves Chico for a chance at stardom in New York. Chico and his pal Ramón follow, and the star-crossed romance continues.

The collaboration of Trueba, the director of the elegant "Belle Epoque" and the music documentary "Calle 54," and Mariscal, the artist and designer whose creations include the '92 Barcelona Olympics' mascot Cobi, brings out the best of both sides of the live-action/animation split. Trueba opens up the heartfelt passion of these characters, while Mariscal's firm lines and bold colors re-create the high life of Havana, New York and Las Vegas, where the story reaches its climax.

Together, with an assist from 93-year-old composer/arranger Bebo Valdés (who performs Chico's piano work), they saturate the movie in the dynamic jazz of the era. With cartoon cameos from Charlie Parker, Nat King Cole, Dizzy Gillespie and Tito Puente, Trueba and Mariscal capture the excitement, danger and sensuality of jazz — especially when Rita is singing. (Rita's singing voice is provided by Idania Valdés, while Limara Meneses performs her speaking voice.)

The brightness and beauty of "Chico & Rita" will charm you, but the music — and the romance — is what will win you over.

Twitter: @moviecricket


'Chico & Rita'

A star-crossed romance, set in the nightclubs of Havana and rendered in bold and bright animation.

Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.

When • Opens Friday, April 6.

Rating • Not rated, but probably R for animated sexuality and nudity, and some violence.

Running time • 94 minutes; in Spanish with subtitles.

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