I don’t have much experience reviewing children’s movies, so, before writing this, I did some research to glean a few of the points prescient to their reviews. Fortunately the standard kid-flick critique doesn’t differ much from your standard, well, non-kid-flick review. The only theme uniting them all is to note whether adults will enjoy it as much as their brood (or whether either audience will enjoy it).
So let’s get that out of the way: The kids will probably enjoy it (the ones invited to my screening didn’t make too much noise, but that may have been due to the iron fists of their handlers); adults won’t mind it. Rio isn’t particularly sophisticated and comes with your basic (and I use this term only because it does very much apply here) cookie-cutter plot in which you already know everything that’s going to happen within the first 12 minutes, and, beyond that, there’s not a whole lot else—save for the location shots, which I’ll get to in a moment.
The story is that Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) is a rare Spix macaw, taken from his homeland of Brazil when he was a chick and shipped to Moose Lake, Minnesota, where his crate falls off the back of the truck and he’s adopted by Linda (Leslie Mann), a bookish girl who raises him over the next 15 years. Linda doesn’t make many friends in that time, but she does open a bookstore, and the story proper begins when Tulio (Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro), a bird scientist, drops by to inform Linda that Blu is one of the last of his species and must go to Brazil to mate with Jewel (Anne Hathaway), the other last of the species.
So they head down to Brazil. Blu is paired with Jewel, and they don’t hit it off well, and Linda is paired with Tulio, and they do. Heading up the obligatory complications is Nigel (Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement), a cockatoo working for a gang of bird smugglers, who sneaks into the bird lab intent on capturing the two (Blu and Jewel, that is) and, of course, Blu’s own inability to fly.
Blu and Jewel are taken back to the smugglers’ and end up caged and chained together. They escape, and soon Nigel, Linda, and Tulio are all on their tails. Jewel wants to head back to the jungle, Blu wants to go back to Minnesota. And along their divergent paths, they meet other birds, including a romantic tucan (George Lopez), a street-talking canary (Jamie Foxx), a hip-hoppin’ cardinal (Will.i.am), and a drooly bulldog (Tracy Morgan). Hi-jinx ensue.
As I wrote, it’s all pretty predictable, something akin to all the Care Bear–Pound Puppies-straight-to-VHS (or Beta, if you were in my household) “films” my generation grew up with—though thankfully not nearly as cutsie-poo and far, far better looking (though that isn’t really saying much), and the songs, which are abrupt and last for only a minute or so, are certainly not laden with boorish morals and even fun.
But the one thing Rio excels at—and this almost justifies the otherwise wholly unnecessary 3-D—is Rio itself, which is absolutely gorgeously rendered from the quaint trolleys to the dingy back alleys to the sweeping and tingle-inducing panorama shots. Director Carlos Saldanha’s love letter to the city is so eloquent that if it were a woman, he wouldn’t even need to buy her dinner to seal the deal.
In comparison, however, the character design shrivels. I’m not an animation snob, but I do wish Blue Sky Studios didn’t try so hard to be like Pixar, especially when it comes to humans (though their animals look pretty human-y, too). Both of them try to be too realistic and have forgotten about the expressive freedom their medium offers. This is supposed to be a cartoon, after all, why not have some fun with it? Instead, everyone looks the same and their facial expressions run the gamut of obligatories from raised eyebrows to drooping eyeballs, with a few vacant smiles and frowns in between (basically everything you see in the poster).
Finally, the cast, which is large and talented, is fine, but is chosen for their names. And yet how many Jesse Eisenberg/Leslie Mann/Will.i.am/George Lopez fans will it attract? (Or Hathaway fans, for that matter.) They’re not miscast, and Blu is clearly modeled on the Eisenberg/Cera neurotic 20-something, but it’s not necessary. The script is clearly written for children, and the roles don’t call for its cast’s talents, so why not cast some unknowns or even impersonators?
Rio doesn’t aspire to be anything more than simple children’s entertainment, but it’s also hard to outright dislike. Kids 10 and below may watch the DVD with their fingers itching for the “Repeat” button and likely revisit it years later with a mild appreciation, thinking to themselves You know, that wasn’t too bad—(and it’ll certainly hold up better than the Care Bears)