Friday, April 15, 2011

Rio: Samba-hued delight

Rio (2011) • View trailer for Rio
Four stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang

I haven’t had this much fun south of the border, since Donald Duck met Joe Carioca and Panchito in 1945’s The Three Caballeros.
Rafael, right, a toucan deliriously in love with Rio and its annual Carnaval
celebration, insists that natural instincts will take over if Blu, left, simply tries
to fly. Blu has his doubts, and so does Jewel ... who already has seen a few of
the displaced Blu's unsuccessful efforts to leave the ground.

Rio is a joyous, giddy riot of color and song, anchored by captivating characters and propelled by a clever story that delivers plenty of fun — and a sly environmental message — while building to a suspenseful finale. This is, in short, another can’t-miss hit from Blue Sky Studios, the folks behind the equally polished Ice Age franchise.

A few elements — notably the placement of some songs — feel “borrowed” from the formula employed in Madagascar, but not to a bothersome degree; let’s just say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and let it go at that.

Mostly, director/co-scripter Carlos Saldanha scores by skillfully matching character to voice talent, supplying a narrative — with co-writer Don Rhymer — that opens with pizzazz and unfolds in distinctive chapters, and, perhaps more than anything else, reflects the obviously unabashed affection he has for his own home town of Rio de Janeiro.

Not since Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, and its delirious depiction of Paris, has a director concocted such an opulent valentine to his native city.

As this film’s press notes so eloquently — and truthfully — state, Rio is more than a point on a map; it’s a magical place, a state of mind, and an attitude.

The saga begins in the Brazilian jungle, as a baby bird delights in an explosion of colorful avian neighbors indulging in a choreographed winged dance that would do Busby Berkeley proud. Sadly, this euphoric moment doesn’t last; smugglers descend and snatch as many birds as they can toss into cages ... including our terrified youngster.

A long plane trip and a van mishap later, the tropical infant is close to death in a small, snowbound Minnesota community. Salvation arrives in the form of a little girl named Linda, who carefully plucks the tiny creature from its damaged packing crate, promising to care for it.

One charming montage later, the girl has grown up and become the owner of her own small-town bookstore; the bird has matured into a gorgeous blue macaw dubbed Blu. The two are inseparable, and I wish the film could pause long enough to spend more time with the daily routine enjoyed by these two best friends; it’s both droll and touching.

Our protagonists also have familiar voices: Blu is given a regal, if slightly prissy bearing by Jesse Eisenberg, recently Oscar-nominated for The Social Network, while Linda displays all the warmth and affection that Leslie Mann can deliver (which is considerable).

There’s only one problem: Having been stolen so young, Blu doesn’t know how to fly. But that doesn’t stop him from creatively maneuvering through the bird-friendly environment Linda has created in their home.

Then, out of the, um, blue, their peaceful existence is shattered by the arrival of Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro), an eccentric ornithologist who has journeyed all the way from Rio, motivated by the knowledge that Blu may be the last male blue macaw of his kind. Tulio has a female at his sanctuary, and he hopes to breed her with Blu, and thus preserve the species.

But that means a trip to Rio, a prospect that neither Linda nor Blu greets with enthusiasm.

(One wonders how, precisely, Tulio could have found Blu — it’s not like the original smugglers left a map, and besides, Blu fell off the truck! — but we’ll let that slide.)

Finally persuaded by the importance of Tulio’s mission, Linda consents. Soon she and Blu are jouncing down the streets of Rio, dodging residents and tourists getting ready for the annual Carnaval celebration, which will start the next day. That’s of no consequence, of course; Tulio is more concerned about introducing Blu to Jewel (Anne Hathaway), in the hopes of striking quick romantic sparks.

The first meeting doesn’t go well; Jewel isn’t terribly impressed by this obviously insecure, out-of-place nerd bird, and Eisenberg’s whiny asides don’t improve the situation.

But before the relationship can build, Blu and Jewel are stolen by yet another set of animal smugglers, shackled to each other and bundled into a storeroom filled with scores of other exotic birds ... all under the watchful beak and talons of a vicious white cockatoo named Nigel (Jemaine Clement). Although our not-quite-lovebirds manage to escape, they’re on the run in a hostile city environment, and Nigel isn’t far behind ... and the shackles remain. Which means that since Blu can’t fly, neither can Jewel.

Clever touch, that, and it hearkens all the way back to Alfred Hitchcock’s wonderful adaptation of The 39 Steps, which handcuffed its beleaguered hero (Robert Donat) to the woman (Madeleine Carroll) who isn’t even sure she likes him, let alone believes in his innocence. The dynamic is much the same here, and Saldanha milks the situation for gentle humor, while allowing proximity to induce a gradual thaw between Blu and Jewel.

Fortunately, our protagonists make some friends: a spunky canary named Nico (Jamie Foxx), a chunky cardinal named Pedro ( and a funky toucan named Rafael (George Lopez). Eventually, they’re joined by a helpful, slobbering bulldog named Luiz (Tracy Morgan), whose gobbets of drool are exploited for maximum eewww potential.

The film is laden with music, and Saldanha uses it quite effectively: from the prologue’s avian dance to the joyfully percussive “Hot Wings (I Wanna Party)” and the samba-flavored “Telling the World.” Best of all, Blu’s initial airborne view of Rio — no, he’s not exactly flying — is given additional splashy emphasis by a fresh recording of the Sergio Mendes/Brasil ’66 hit, “Mas Que Nada.”

(While not wishing to detract, for a moment, from this film’s original songs, I do wish Saldanha had included more classic bossa nova numbers by Antonio Carlos Jobim, along with — perhaps — a tune or two from Black Orpheus. Such music is Brazil.)

The voice talent, as mentioned above, is both perfect, and perfectly directed. I can’t imagine a better choice than Eisenberg, for his self-conscious bird out of paradise; similarly, Hathaway is an engaging opposite, as the free-spirited Jewel. Clement is flat-out scary as the malevolently dignified Nigel, and Morgan utterly steals the show, once Luiz pops up.

Indeed, Saldanha was wise to hold this character for the third act, because Morgan is a force of nature ... even when it’s just his voice.

While many of these creatures are exaggerated versions of their real-world selves, the animators occasionally sneak in impressively lifelike behavior, particularly with Blu. Watch the way he waddles, while walking, or the way he employs his beak to help climb a set of slatted steps; you’d swear, suddenly, that you’re watching an actual macaw. It’s eerie, and Saldanha uses such touches just often enough to remind us that, while these particular birds may only be characters in an animated movie, their real-world counterparts are under constant threat from precisely the sort of smugglers depicted here.

Finally, it’s refreshing to watch a film clearly designed with its 3D effects in mind, as opposed to having them slapped on after the fact. We expect the dizzying vertigo delivered by several winged and hopping chase sequences, but other bits are equally clever: even little things, such as the dimensionality that results every time Rafael turns his head, and his enormous beak stretches out and slides past our vision.

After-the-fact 3D movies suffer from the medium’s tendency to darken the screen image, but that’s not a problem here. Saldanha’s film is never less than a breathtaking, richly choreographed cacophony of color and music: a setting every bit as important to the story as its winged stars.

Toss in a new short cartoon starring Scrat, the eternally frustrated critter from the Ice Age series, and what more could you desire?

A film’s success, as I’ve observed before, can be determined by one’s desire to watch it again ... and on that count, Rio is destined to attract plenty of repeat business.

As it should.

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