Rio Movie Review

I have to admit: I whistled when the screen lit up with a huge, colorful 3-D jungle.  A catchy samba beat kicked in as candy-colored birds wheeled just in front of my eyeballs, small mammals danced across the tops of the seats in front of me, and jungle flowers flexed their petals in geometric patterns in time with the music.  From the safety of his nest, a bright blue baby macaw watched the celebration with wide eyes, a nice surrogate for me and the others in the audience with our big goofy glasses on, unconsciously tapping our toes or drumming our armrests.  And then – disaster!  The music stopped abruptly as the mammals were suddenly trapped, the birds were netted and the little blue baby bird found himself in a dark crate on a plane going somewhere far away.


As attention-getters go, the first five minutes of RIO really get the job done.  And I’m happy to report that the rest of the movie is no less colorful, energetic or exciting.

After a fortuitous accident rolls his crate off the back of a truck in Moose Lake, Minnesota, the baby, Blu (voice of Jesse Eisenberg), is found by a small girl, Linda (voice of Leslie Mann), who takes him in and raises him as her own.  Fifteen years pass in a montage and now Linda is the shy, buttoned-down proprietor of the small town bookstore, with the macaw as her friend and constant companion.  Enter Túlio (voice of Rodrigo Santoro), a Brazilian ornithologist; he has journeyed to Moose Lake to ask Linda if she and Blu can visit his lab in Rio de Janeiro, where the only female blue macaw left in existence waits to repopulate the species.


Linda is a humble upper-Midwesterner and Blu is thoroughly domesticated, a bit of a nerd, and completely unable to fly; neither of them particularly welcome the idea, but Túlio is persistent, and soon enough they are in an open-topped Jeep (why do movie naturalists always drive open-topped Jeeps?), driving through one of the most populous cities in the world in the middle of the Carnivale holiday.  Blu is reluctantly introduced to Jewel, the assertive and even a bit domineering female macaw (voice of Anne Hathaway), who, to Blu’s bafflement, is infinitely more interested in escaping from the cozy wildlife sanctuary than perpetuating the species; soon, however, an inept gang of wildlife smugglers and their vicious pet cockatoo Nigel (voice of Jemaine Clement), break in and abduct the two not-lovebirds to sell to a private collector.  Blu and Jewel escape (thanks to his knowledge of cage locks) and the smugglers give chase, with Linda and Túlio not far behind…and the plot is on.


Is it a spoiler to say that Blu and Jewel will meet a range of broadly comic, loveable sidekicks during their quest, or that the bird lover and the bird scientist will find romance, or that there will be chases, narrow escapes, songs and dances and visual spectacle?  It might be all be a bit predictable, but – and this is what matters in a G-rated children’s feature – director Carlos Saldahna makes it fun.  Hailing from Brazil himself, Saldahna never misses an opportunity to show off his home and its riot of beautiful colors, giving us breathtaking vistas of city and jungle alike, an exciting chase through the notorious favela slums, and culminating in an eyepopping climax set amidst a nighttime Carnivale parade, all of it set to the timeless, meaty rhythms of samba and bossa nova.  Hollywood’s recent love affair with 3-D has had mixed results, to say the least, but RIO, with its lush visual spectacle, is without question one of the successes.


The movie is perhaps not quite at the classic level of a TOY STORY 3 or what have you, but neither does it feel like disposable Dreamworks product.  A lot of credit for this has to go to the voice cast, who deliver engaging and worthwhile performances all the way down the line; Blu Sky Studios seems to have learned the important lesson that Pixar’s movies work in part because they cast the right actors for the right roles, instead of just assuming that we’ll like something because Will Smith is a shark.


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