In the realm of computer animation, Pixar and DreamWorks have always maintained the top spots, while Fox’s Blue Sky animation has perpetually dwindled behind the giants with middling efforts (Ice Age & sequels, Robots, etc). Directed by Ice Age mastermind Carlos Saldanha, 2011’s Rio is, alas, not going to improve Fox’s animation reputation. Rio does offer a simple pro-conservation message, but not much else is going on underneath its surface – the picture is not emotionally affecting like Toy Story 3, nor as sprightly and clever as How to Train Your Dragon or as sweet as Despicable Me. Kids might be taken with the animation and bright characters, but adults will likely shrug and merely endure the flick for its 90-minute duration. Rio is distinctly average: it has its moments, but it does not always work since quality laughs are in short supply and the material remains forgettable and disposable. In an age where a family trip to the movies could almost pay for a new television, it’s not good enough.
Bird-napped at a young age and shipped to the United States, Blu (Eisenberg) is a Spix’s Macaw who grew up with loving owner Linda (Mann) in rural Minnesota to become domesticated and unable to fly. Into Blu’s blissful life soon steps a Brazilian ornithologist (Santoro), who reveals that Blu is one of only two Spix’s Macaws left in existence. With this news in mind, he convinces Linda to travel to Rio and allow for Blu to mate with the last remaining female, Jewel (Hathaway), in a bid to save the species. Yet, once united, Blu and Jewel do not exactly hit it off. However, the couple are soon stolen from the scientists; chained together and sold to a black market bird dealer. On the run, Jewel yearns for escape and freedom, but Blu simply wants to be reunited with Linda and head home. During their adventures, they are helped by kind toucan Rafael (Lopez), inseparable bird buddies Nico (Foxx) and Pedro (will.i.am), and a bulldog named Luiz (Morgan). Unfortunately, though, a malicious cockatoo named Nigel (Clement) is hot on their tale.
Somewhat charming in places but ultimately unmemorable, Rio is a typical hero’s journey story merged with anthropomorphised animal activity. In other words, nobody behind the movie set out to challenge the genre. Rather than aiming for inventiveness, Rio‘s makers simply adhered to the standard template: anthropomorphise something inhuman, concoct a dilemma for the protagonists, throw in a villain and a few quick-witted supporting characters, add a couple of musical numbers, and present it all using flashy computer animation. In 2011, though, routine efforts like this frankly look drab. Despite computer animation’s prominence in this day and age, it is evident that animators still erroneously believe they can get by on novelty alone. Sorry, no dice. Pixar’s original Toy Story from 1995 worked and still holds up today because the Pixar guys did not call it a day after designing the animation. Rather, they knew the novelty would eventually dissolve, and, accordingly, they anchored the narrative in emotions, humanity and messages; mixing the groundbreaking animation with genuine depth. Rioexhibits none of this innovation.
On a more positive note, the vivacious CGI animation is positively gorgeous to behold, with the natural beauty of the city of Rio shining through in every frame. The picture particularly comes alive during a sequence in which Blu and Jewel hitch rides on various hang-gliders as they soar around the city, and it’s easy to get the feeling that you’re actually there. (One could even call Rio a big-budget travelogue of the titular city, which is somewhat unsurprisingly since helmer Carlos Saldanha was born in Rio.) To the credit of the filmmakers, too, there are a few good laughs and one-liners to enjoy here, but there aren’t enough. Too often, Rio eschews integrity and momentum in favour of momentary laughs and ostentatious set-pieces. This likely came as a result of the “talent” involved in the scriptwriting – Don Rhymer, Joshua Sternin, Sam Harper and Jeffrey Ventimilia. Among them, these four writers are responsible for Deck the Halls, Surviving Christmas, Yogi Bear, Tooth Fairy, Cheaper by the Dozen 2, and the first two Big Momma’s House movies. Oh boy…
Oddly, for a movie set in Brazil and populated with Brazilian entities, there’s a distinct lack of Brazilian actors in the cast. Jesse Eisenberg is acceptable as Blu since the character grew up in America, but Brazilian characters like Jewel, Nigel, Nico, Pedro and others were voiced by distinctly American-sounding actors. Zuh? At the very least, the vocal performances are decent if unspectacular. The standout is Jermaine Clement, who imbued Nigel the antagonistic cockatoo with a great, villainous personality.
To be sure, Rio has its charms; there are a few decent laughs to be had, and greatness flickers intermittently during select sequences (the opening musical number is terrific). Taken as a whole, Rio is simply okay – the story is okay and the characters are okay. It’s not thoroughly detestable or particularly tedious, but it lacks the staying power of Pixar’s regular output.