“Sing it, Lionel”
Always playing third fiddle to the powerhouses of Pixar and Dreamworks, Sony Pictures’ Blue Sky Studios has held their own with the Ice Age franchise and a couple supporters. Their newest endeavor, Rio, looks to try and recreate a bit of the magic from their competitor’s Madagascar, setting the tale in an exotic locale—Brazil—and populating it with a blend of random humor, violin playing sentimentality, and an eccentric hoard of hive-mind beasts for slapstick entertainment. The music is unfortunately not up to snuff, giving a film aimed at a Middle School audience some out-of-place High School sounds with its monotonous samba entries, and the story may be a tad unoriginal, but with its fair share of laughs, the work is far from unwatchable.
I’m not exactly sure what so many people see in the final product, as it did receive moderate critical praise. There isn’t anything overtly special going on as its main macaw Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) is twice stripped of his home. First as a baby, when trappers capture his entire forest in Rio de Janeiro, the cages shipped of to America where his crate falls from the back of the truck in Minnesota, and second, fifteen years later, when his adoptive mother Linda (Leslie Mann) agrees to take him back once Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro), a scientist looking to mate him with the last blue macaw female, organizes a trip to play God and end their extinction. But as any character played by Eisenberg can attest, it won’t be easy bringing a ‘human companion’ into the wild—not only are all his neuroses intact, but poor Blu doesn’t even know how to fly.
And so begins the adventure in Rio, the Christ the Redeemer statue always in the background to ensure we are truly there. Linda and Tulio introduce the two birds and go out for a lovely dinner—both geeky attractive with an obvious awkward love sparking between them—while Blu and Jewel (Anne Hathaway) acquaint themselves. But she isn’t interested in copulating; she wants escape. Having lived her life in the wild, no matter how much bigger her cage is compared to Blu’s back home, the allure to soar the skies and know freedom is too much to listen to his idyllic trust in humans. A lucky young bird scooped up by an attentive owner like Linda, he doesn’t know the dangers of the world or the nefarious wiles of those willing to sacrifice others for personal gain. When a group of black market wildlife thieves and their villainous cockatoo Nigel (Jemaine Clement) steal the macaws during the night, however, Blu soon discovers humanity’s flaw.
With easily the worst song of the bunch to explain his past glory gone to pasture, consisting of lazy rhymes and the most annoying cackle ever, Nigel isn’t the kind of villain you want to see often. Luckily he doesn’t play the biggest role, disappearing for stretches as Blu and Jewel venture off in search of removing the claw-cuffs chained to their feet. These moments alone with the unlikely couple work best, the danger of criminals out to get them pushed to the background and the love of Linda searching a foreign city for her best friend brushed to the side. They bicker and laugh as they fall for one another, his crippling fear and domestication a nice foil to her confidence and courage. Basically it’s a romantic comedy starring Eisenberg and Hathaway archetypes masked by animation. They both do what they do best.
As such, with the machinations inherent in such a cookie-cutter design, we must be given a likeable cast of supporting players to cut through the bland, eye-rolling and want for more. To this end, Rio succeeds wonderfully. I enjoyed the duo of Nico (Jamie Foxx) and Pedro (Will.i.am). They add nice comic relief and flavor to the otherwise obvious character tropes at play. George Lopez also joins the fray as Rafael, a Toco toucan with sage advice on love—it seems he has been typecast in this position of late—escorting the couple to his buddy Luis, the bulldog mechanic. Played by Tracy Morgan, this slobbering, ADD-riddled beast is by far the best part of the whole film. It’s Morgan-lite, as it must be with the kiddies watching, but all his mannerisms and ticks are present as the drool continuously hangs from his jowls, a desire to be included his only goal.
There are a pack of marmosets to contend with towards the end too, enlisted by Nigel and his power-hungry leadership skills to delegate responsibility—which is welcome since it cuts his screentime. Akin to the lemurs of Madagascar, their odd absurdity is fun to watch, especially during an all-out brawl reminiscent of the back-alley rumble in Anchorman. With cute little jokes such as their texting in monkey (Ooooh!!! Ahhhh!!! Ahhhh!!!), and their use of human jewelry for clothing, these critters, coupled with a few hysterical birds in captivity gone insane, add just the right amount of off-the-wall humor needed to keep the paint-by-numbers plot of our leads from being loathsomely dull. In other words, they give the audience members over ten-years of age something to enjoy while the children revel in the gorgeous colors, slapstick comedy, and annoying music. And I’m pretty sure the rugrats will love every minute, making it worthwhile even if much less appealing than whatever Pixar does next.