A South American setting and striking animation lend freshness to “Rio’s” otherwise much-traveled storyline about a pampered pet who has to learn to survive in the wild. We’ve seen this tale many times — “Madagascar,” “Bolt,” “The Wild,” “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,”and more. But this version is buoyed by local color — literally, with a vibrantly sun-drenched palette, along with a sensationally festive Carnival parade, and a slinky samba-liscious soundtrack overseen by Rio’s most enduringly popular musical export, Sergio Mendes.
Blu (voice of “The Social Network’s” Jesse Eisenberg) is a rare blue macaw who was captured by animal smugglers in Brazil as a tiny chick. His crate falls out of a truck in snowy Minnesota (identified onscreen simply as “Not Rio”) and is rescued by a little girl named Linda. He grows up blissfully domesticated and never bothers to learn to fly. Everything he wants is within reach. He brings Linda her glasses when she wakes up and she makes sure he has just the right number of marshmallows in his hot chocolate. As he explains, he is not a pet; he is a companion. And Linda says he is her best friend.
They are visited by an ornithologist named Tulio (voice of Rodrigo Santoro), who tells Linda (voice of Leslie Mann) there is just one last surviving female blue macaw (voice of Anne Hathaway as Jewel). Unless they mate, it will be the end of their species. Linda reluctantly agrees to take Blu to Brazil. But smugglers show up again to steal Blu and Jewel. Blu has to learn some survival skills and make some new friends to find his way back to Linda.
Blue Sky is the studio that produced the “Ice Age” series and it is obvious that they are glad to be done with the endless blues and grays of the ice, snow, and rock settings. Brazilian-born director Carlos Saldanha (director of “Ice Age” and co-director of the underrated “Robots”) takes evident pride and delight in bringing his home town to the screen, taking full advantage of 3D CGI so that we can swoop around the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue atop the Corcovado Mountain and hang-glide over miles of beaches. He has fun with Brazilian culture, too. When Carnival revelers cross in front of their car, Linda asks Tulio if a woman in a gold-spangled costume is a performer. “No,” he replies, “she’s my dentist.” As the woman in the spangles happily runs off to the celebration, she reminds Tulio to floss. And Blu provides a critique of samba music that will sound familiar to its fans.
Eisenberg’s tremulous voice is just right for Blu, giving him a neurotic, urban, understated wit. “You know how people say ‘it’s a jungle out there?'” he complains to Jewel when they find themselves in the middle of a rainforest. “Not a good thing.” He gets strong support from Tracy Morgan as a bulldog, George Lopez as a toucan, and Will.i.Am and Jamie Foxx as friendly birds. The story may not be new, but in fairness it is a theme that is very appealing to children, whose entire lives are about finding themselves outside their safe, domestic environment and trying to navigate the wild and sometimes scary unpredictability of real life.
The star of the show in every respect is a cockatoo named Nigel (voice of Jermaine Clement of HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords”), one of the most masterfully animated characters in movie history. Blue Sky Studios created a remarkable bird villain named Vlad three years ago in “Horton Hears a Who.” It was a daunting mechanical challenge to animate the infinite complexities of dozens of wing joints and thousands of feathers but Vlad was on screen only briefly. Here the Blue Sky animators take what they learned from Vlad much further. Nigel is a key figure with an even more complicated structure, at once menacing and shambling, who sings, dances, menaces, and fights, all in character. The algorithms necessary for what can only be called Nigel’s performance could probably have programmed a moon shot, and yet he seems completely natural and fluidly expressive. Clement’s voice work is a perfect balance of mean and funny, and Nigel’s musical tribute to his own villainy is pure pleasure.
Saldanha is at his best when there are dozens of characters on screen. Whether they are dancing or fighting, they are colorful, joyous, and meticulously choreographed. A battle between the birds and the monkeys is exciting and funny and the opening dance number is a kaleidoscopic treat. The climax, in the middle of a Carnival parade with massive floats and crowds of thousands is brilliantly imagined. Blu spends most of the movie trying to get off the ground, but with Nigel and these big, showy scenes, Saldanha makes the movie soar.
Parents should know that this film has some mild references to mating, some potty humor, some mild cartoon-peril, and some skimpy costumes.
Family discussion: Why did Blu like Jewel more than she liked him? Why do they have different ideas about humans? Why was it hard for him to learn to fly?
If you like this, try: “Ice Age” from the same film-makers and the Disney films set in South America, “Saludos Amigos” and “The Three Caballeros”