Pleasant as a lazy spring day—and almost as exciting—Rio is the latest fish-out-of-water animated movie to aim for the center of a big, family-friendly bull's-eye.
The fish-out-of-water tale is probably best reflected by Finding Nemo, since that's quite literally what it was, but displaced animals might be the most common launching pad for animated movies today.
Rio is directed by Carlos Saldanha, whose Ice Age movies found great success by employing the same basic concept. Then there's the Madagascar series, Kung Fu Panda, Happy Feet, the recent Rango, the even-more-recent Hop, and almost everything Pixar has ever made (substituting cars, robots, toys and old men paired with Boy Scouts for animals). That doesn't mean Rio should follow a different formula; in fact, since it's trying to reach the broadest possible audience, a better question would be: Why would filmmakers ever want to try a more-challenging approach?
Maybe to keep the audiences from getting bored? After all, the writers clearly are.
Rio does try a few new wrinkles, like presenting more musical numbers than are commonly found in animation, and while they would be a fantastic addition to a good cartoon, they merely punctuate a mediocre one. At its core, this is just another good-looking piece of computer animation with a flimsy plot, a few laughs and a star-driven voice cast.
The fish-out-of-water tilt involves a blue macaw named Blu (Jesse Eisenberg), who was smuggled out of the Amazon rainforest as a baby and fell out of the back of a delivery truck en route to a Minnesota pet store. He was found in the snow by a young girl named Linda (Leslie Mann), and they grew up together; some 20 years later, Blu is completely domesticated. He can't even fly. And he has the kind of crippling social neuroses that would make Woody Allen jealous.
At the urging of a Brazilian ornithologist (Rodrigo Santoro), Linda takes Blu back to Rio to mate with Jewel (Anne Hathaway), since blue macaws are endangered. If you had to choose between all hell staying in check in this situation, and all hell breaking loose, which would you choose?
Blu and Jewel are swiped out of the lab by poachers, who are again trying to smuggle the endangered birds out of Brazil for a large profit. The poachers are aided, somehow, by an evil cockatoo (Jemaine Clement). After freeing themselves, Blu and Jewel begin darting all over Rio and bump into supporting players including George Lopez, Jamie Foxx, will.i.am and Tracy Morgan. But tracking down Linda and the ornithologist is no small feat, especially with Carnaval ramping up on the streets of an already-overflowing metropolis.
Rio is one of those films in which the animation fails to make its setting more lively and colorful than it already is. Even City of God, which takes place entirely in the slums of this city (and which is alluded to at one point with a couple of visual cues), depicts a more vibrant Rio de Janeiro than this. With the exception of two or three scenes, the action could really take place anywhere.
Eisenberg and Hathaway maximize their rather leaden material, but Jemaine Clement, who could be poised to steal the show, struggles mightily. He lays on the villainy a bit too thick, and his song is the worst of the crop. On the flip side, although Jamie Foxx contributes almost nothing to the flow of the story, his song is possibly the biggest highlight.
Rio is certainly digestible, and with a family in tow, perhaps that's all it needs to be. But it's not exactly fine dining.