By Brian Orndorf
“Rio” doesn’t break new ground in terms of animated entertainment for families, but what it does it does very well. A musical romp boasting an explosion of colors and an energetic range of voice actors, “Rio” keeps to a minimal plan of villains and personal triumph, summoning a charming, booty-shaking carnival ambiance where a bunch of crazy birds (as opposed to the angry kind) participate in some 3D-inflated slapstick, adding to the riotous party atmosphere.
A thoroughly domesticated Spix’s Macaw living in rural Minnesota, Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) hasn’t learned how to fly, preferring an easy life on the ground with loving owner Linda (Leslie Mann, nailing a Midwestern accent). When ornithologist Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) discovers Blu, he urges Linda to join him down in Rio de Janeiro, looking to pair the neurotic bird with Jewel (Anne Hathaway) and potentially save the species. Once acquainted, Blu and Jewel are separated from the safety of scientists, finding themselves chained together and sold to a black market bird seller. While Jewel hunts for escape and the freedom of flight, Blu is horrified by his new surroundings, encountering a kindly Toco Toucan named Rafael (George Lopez), a pair of party birds (Jamie Foxx and Will.i.am), and Luiz (Tracy Morgan), a helpful bulldog. Unable to fly, Blu struggles to locate Linda and return home, finding Nigel (Jemaine Clement), a malicious cockatoo, preventing an easy escape.
A vet of the CG-animated world, director Carlos Saldanha (the “Ice Age” movies) comes to “Rio” with a firm grasp of what he wants. The script is a basic assembly of hero’s journey parts and anthropomorphized animal activity, doing nothing to challenge the genre, freely giving family audiences an experience they’ve enjoyed countless times before. The twist here is found in the execution, with “Rio” overcoming tired mechanics through a generous sense of visual and vocal life, with the director clearly delighting in this world of concerned birds and a most extreme example of cultural contrast, with the snowy serenity of Minnesota colliding with the blitzkrieg percussive rumble of Rio during the raucous carnival celebration, further impeding the progress of our heroes.
“Rio” is a striking movie, and I suppose that’s to be expected with a film of brilliant birds and ornately costumed Brazilians. The production creates a vibrant setting in Rio, respecting the natural beauty of the land while amping the cartoon mood through bold character design and the sheer electric hold of a celebratory city. It’s expressive animation that creates tremendous merriment and a touch of awe, with welcome attention to animal behaviors, extending to a group of thieving marmosets (Nigel’s secret agents) and the drool-drenched Luiz, who desperately wants to party down with his bird buddies. Saldanha keeps the film frantic and fluid, taking to the skies and the dramatically softened maze of the city’s favelas, constructing a madcap energy that’s engaging, often taking attention away from the storytelling routine.
Voice acting also elevates “Rio,” with a well-rounded cast of performers all contributing a unique sonic punch to the production. Eisenberg and Hathaway are especially manic as the not-so-love birds, bringing a combustible chemistry that makes for plausible romantic interest. Also creating a positive impression is Clement, who spins the villain role with a welcome snarky snarl, while also gifting the picture a memorable, cheeky song in a film that relies way too much on Foxx and Will.i.am (a curiously one-note performer) to bring a beat. It’s a thin role of wicked obstruction, yet Clement introduces some eccentricity and wit to the picture.
What “Rio” lacks in invention it makes up in presentation, generating an infectious, amusing adventure. It also treats rural Minnesota with some degree of respect and benevolent satire, which counts for something in my book.