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Rio 3D (2011)

April 15, 2011

written by: Don Rhymer, Joshua Sternin & Jeffrey Ventimilia (screenplay) Carlos Saldanha (story)

produced by: John C. Donkin, Bruce Anderson & Chris Wedge 

directed by: Carlos Saldanha
rated PG (for mild off color humor)
98 min. 
U.S. release date: April 15, 2011

For some time now, American studios big and small have been clamoring to catch up with Pixar and their amazing run of excellently crafted animated features. Only Dreamworks has been able to come close to matching their work in terms of quality and box office success. But Brazilian writer/director Carlos Saldanha hasn’t done too bad for himself, having had a hand in bringing three successful “Ice Age” movies as well as the quirky/clangy “Robots” to theaters for Blue Sky Studios (20th Century Fox’s animated wing). Now, he takes audiences to his home in a colorful and energetic trip to “Rio”. What it lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in its impressive cast and creative design work, surrounded by a bouncing, vibrant Carnivale soundtrack.   

Domesticated as long as he can remember, Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) is a Spix’s Maccau who barely recalls his birthplace of Brazil. He now lives in Minnesota with Linda (Leslie Mann), a nebbish book store owner who endlessly dotes on the bird, to the point of  serving him hot cocoa just the way he wants it. The two seem to be made for each other, living a quite life in a world of their own creation where neither has to spread their wings. All that is about to change when Linda is visited by Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro), a loony orinthologist who thinks he can talk to birds. He’s come all the way from Rio de Janeiro in search of Blu and encourages Linda to take the neurotic bird back with him to play match-maker with Jewel (Anne Hathaway), so they can multiply their species. 

Despite her reluctance, she gives in and soon she is south of the Equator, being escorted around by Tulio, while a nervous Blu and an independent Jewel are left to ruffle feathers. Potential courtship is suddenly squashed when a small band of local smugglers steal the two caged birds. 
Now, the two birds must put aside their differences (she flies, he cannot; she’s bold and brave, he knows hows to hold back and unlock cages with his beak) and make a break for freedom. Hovering in their way is a nasty-looking Nigel (Jemaine Clement), a nasty-looking Cockatoo , who may be the first animated villain who eats his own kind. 

Assisted by a helpful Toucan named Rafael (George Lopez), who is more than eager to get away from his loco family, some comic relief in the form of a cardinal and a canary (Jamie Foxx and, respectively), and Luiz (a hilarious Tracy Morgan), a slobbering junkyard bulldog, Blu finds himself thrown into an adventure he never asked for. While Linda and Tulio find their own trouble searching for the rare birds, this flock of new friends also must contend with some insane pick-pocket jungle marmosets that are out to prevent any type of reunion with the humans who promise safety. 
While it may not provide anything new in terms of family entertainment, “Rio” does deliver a fun time at the movies. Let’s try not to throw fun out of our cinematic equation. Considering the sheer amount of animated features released in a year nowadays (at least one every month), one should not expect Pixar quality each time. Animation is a genre. Just like horror, comedy, and comic book films. And we all know the foul duds from those genres that are often released into theaters. So, while “Rio” gives us some of the same characters we’ve seen before, (zany sidekicks breaking into hip-hop beats), a familiar hero’s journey theme, and wild chase sequences, it simply exceeds at giving viewers something they’ve enjoyed before. 

At least the writers did away with the typical potty humor and sarcasm often found in so many animated films obviously aimed at children. They don’t need any help in those areas, thank you. Unfortunately, a romantic thread is firmly intact. Not only do we see Blu and Jewel forces together, but we’re also subjected to the inevitable hook-up between Linda and Tulio. Of course, each couple has to fight before they can work together or come to appreciate one another, but just once it would be nice to see characters leave it at that and walk away in the end. 

The voice acting here is solid, creating characters that seemingly cater to the actor’s strengths. As two birds of a different feather, Eisenberg and Hathaway are pitch-perfect. He’s good at bringing the insecure introvert while she can easily convey a charming combo of sass and joy.  They provide a good deal of combustibility both in personality and potential romance, that make for some enjoyable sequences, especially when the two are changed together and on the run and only one of them can fly. Considering I would never see them together in a live-action film, I was impressed at what they brought to their anthropomorphic toon selves. 

As the Angry Bird (I had to), Clement gives Nigel an appropriately sinister swagger who even breaks out into his own backstory monologue song “Pretty Bird”, which had some funny sight gags to go with clever lyrics. It’s a welcome break from the one-note musical monotony we get from Foxx and 

One thing that stands out even now as I reflect on these characters, is how much these animals resemble the actors. Really. If  Eisenberg and Hathaway magically turned into blue macaws, this is how they would look. Even Lopez’s toucan looks exactly like I would imagine Lopez to be if “followed his nose”. And if  you never noticed how Tracy Morgan resembles a bulldog, well look no further.  I’m aware this happens often, where animators try to design a character with the same qualities as the actors attached to the role. Sometimes it’s a bit too noticeable (like when the characters are human), but here I just became more and more impressed with how uncanny the resemblance was, particularly in the two leads. 

As with most 3D films, I could’ve done without it altogether. Granted, 3D usually works well in animated form, here the lighting suffered, especially in some of the night scenes where it was difficult to decipher what was going on. In a film this visually striking and vibrant, there’s no need to darken the lens with 3D marketing. I could see how the 2D version would take nothing away from the fun to be had here.   

What I appreciated most about “Rio” is that it takes audiences to a place of culture and beauty that actually still exists. The location is clearly Saldanha’s personal choice and you can tell he wants to be our travel guide. From the breathtaking geography that we see from the skies to the crowded maze of the favelas on the ground below, rarely has a city been showcased in such animated care and delight. It’s a great introduction for young ones who may leave wondering what part of the world they just witnessed as they leave the theater, that is after they’re done jumping up and down about “Birds vs. Monkeys!”

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