It’s a toga party at the Tiki Room. In the first minutes of Rio, the new animated feature from 20th Century Fox’s Blue Sky studio, the 3-D screen explodes in a riot of tropical plumage. A thousand species of birds in the Amazonian rain forest sing and soar, fanning out into a kaleidoscope of formations, as if choreographed by a Brazilian Busby Berkeley. The viewers’ spirits rise with them, for here is a splashy display of the innocent, artful exuberance that, these days, the directors of live-action films have left to the guys with pixels.
The opening scene of Rio is an Eden before the fall. Poachers have infiltrated the rain forest and capture all manner of rare birds for sale up North to zoos, private owners and maybe epicures. “Plucked, stuffed, eaten — who cares?” says one of the miscreants. “All I know is, we’re gonna be rich.” It will take the rest of the movie for the natural order to be restored. But that doesn’t mean that most of the birds can’t have fun while they’re waiting for the happy ending of director Carlos Saldanha’s cheerful, colorful, high-flying romp.
One of the kidnapped avians is an infant blue macaw named Blu (voiced by The Social Network‘s Jesse Eisenberg). In the script by Don Rhymer, Sam Harper, Jeffrey Ventimiglia and Joshua Sternin, with a buoyant assist by Mike Reiss of The Simpsons and Queer Duck, Blu lands in Minnesota and is rescued by Linda Gunderson (Leslie Mann), who runs the kind of small bookshop that is itself an endangered species, and who lavishes on him all her affection. Over the years, Blu takes on his owner’s coloration — he grows into a nerd bird with the adorable neuroses associated with the early Woody Allen — and, because Linda doesn’t fly, he hasn’t figured out how to either. Ornithological accuracy is not among Rio‘s virtues, but it’s a cartoon, dammit, and sunny enough to keep kids enchanted and their parents engrossed this weekend.
Linda soon learns, from a bird specialist named Tullio (Rodrigo Santoro), that her pet and only friend is the last male of his species — apparently there is no Blu-man group — and that he must return to Brazil to be mated with the last female, Jewel (Anne Hathaway). Off they reluctantly go, the ever-cautious Linda applying suntan lotion with a 3,000 SPF, and Blu as apprehensive of change as any bird who’s grown to love the security of his gilded cage. Blu and Jewel will meet, find themselves in a new, more dangerous cage, kindle an instant antagonism, get handcuffed — claw-cuffed? — like the couple in The 39 Steps and make their escape through the exotic frenzy of Carnaval time in Rio.
The movie thus occupies that teeming animation subgenre, previously inhabited by the Madagascar films, Bee Movie and Bolt, of a domesticated animal let loose in the wild to fend for itself, discover its true nature, learn life lessons, etc. There’s nothing new here, just an old soda in a bright new can. The concoction is so fizzy in part because Eisenberg and Hathaway infuse their character opposites—he’s morose, she’s indefatigably perky—with an easy attraction that leaves you wishing they’d be paired in a movie where the actors could also be seen. And the Rio-born Saldanha infuses the proceedings with home-town hallmarks: intrigue in the City of God slums, a nifty chase with Blu and Jewel surfboarding over the favelas’ tin roofs, a scene of hang-gliding past the Christ the Redeemer statue and a trip to the beach with 3-D volleyballs propelled into your lap. The film has a sprightly bounce, too, following the pulse of the Brazilian music supervised by Sergio Mendez, and with some infectious if sub-classic songs by will.i.am and Ester Dean.
The success of an animated feature can hinge on three factors: Is the villain deliciously bad? Are the characters — and the stars lending their voices — having a great time? And does the story have a plausible lace-valentine heart at its center? Rio says yes on all three counts. Nigel, the dirty bird who has encaged Blu and Jewel, is voiced by The Flight of the Conchords‘Jemaine Clement with a sneer of splendid comic contempt. Also swell is the supporting cast of the macaws’ helpmates, including Jamie Foxx, will.i.am and Tracy Morgan as a drooling bulldog, Luiz, who has issues with his breed’s reputation. (“I could’ve ripped you apart,” he growls at Blu and Jewel. “But I didn’t. But I could have!“) Luiz reveals his true nature at Carnaval time: he outfits himself in Carmen Miranda fruit-salad headgear. As for the verklempt factor, we’ll just say that yes, Blu must learn to fly, and to do so he’ll need a life-saving challenge. (Guess whose life.)
Sometimes Rio reminds you, by its familiarity, that family-angled animated features are all largely the same film: voyages of personal discovery, coming-of-age tales for kids who haven’t come of age, sexless love stories with the happy ending of domestic togetherness. But the mix of sentiment and verve puts the movie at the high end of the Blue Sky quality scale: a little below Horton Hears a Who! and well above the Ice Age trilogy. If you don’t go in panting for a Pixar-level masterpiece, you should have a blast at this cartoon carnaval.