Friday, April 11, 2014

Rio 2: Back to the jungle

Rio 2 (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated G, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang

Next to co-founder Chris Wedge, writer/director Carlos Saldanha clearly is one of Blue Sky Studios’ most treasured assets.

Jewel, center, feels right at home in the Amazon jungle; her mate Blu, left, is reasonably
secure, as long as he's got his cherished GPS device. Their music-loving daughter, Carla,
couldn't care less ... until she discovers that the jungle birds have their own wonderfully
vibrant approach to samba and bossa nova.
After sharing credit with Wedge on 2002’s Ice Age and 2005’s Robots, Saldanha soloed on the second Ice Age entry, shared credit once again on the third installment, and somehow found time for a couple of hilarious shorts featuring the acorn-challenged Scrat.

All the while, the Brazilian-born Saldanha must’ve been building up to his own pet project: 2011’s Rio, a thoroughly enchanting, bird’s-eye-view valentine to the city of Carnival, samba and a culture every bit as colorful as the film's eye-catching avian stars. In addition to being clever, witty and suspenseful — not to mention serving as an anchor for a gloriously celebratory soundtrack — that film’s script also worked in a mildly subversive, conservation-oriented subtext regarding the heinous black market trade in exotic birds and animals.

Saldanha kept all those plates spinning with the élan of a vaudeville pro. I was impressed three years ago, and equally captivated when I caught up with the film a second time last week, in anticipation of the subject at hand.

To cut to the chase, then, Rio 2 isn’t quite as fresh as its predecessor, but it's still quite entertaining. That said, I miss the greater involvement of Sergio Mendes. Although he returns once again as executive music producer, it’s to a noticeably lesser degree; nothing in this sequel matches the first film’s breathtaking paragliding scene, which took place against an updated rendition of the joyous Brasil ’66 hit, “Mas Que Nada.”

The songs and score in this sequel function more as they would in a stage musical — as story hooks to advance the plot — as opposed to augmenting the overall atmosphere with the rich, seductive sounds of samba and bossa nova. That’s an artistic modification, and not necessarily a bad one; I lament it only because there’s no shortage of animated musicals (I’m looking at you, Frozen), whereas Saldanha and Mendes were more creative and original with their use of songs in the first Rio.

A minor issue, granted, but it does affect this sequel’s tone.

Events pick up a bit after the first film’s conclusion, with our nerdy hero Blu (once again voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) enjoying domestic bliss with his mate, Jewel (Anne Hathaway) and their three offspring: Carla (Rachel Crow), Bia (Amandla Stenberg) and Tiago (Pierce Gagnon). They’re comfortably situated at the Rio de Janeiro animal sanctuary run by Blu’s BFF Linda (Leslie Mann) and Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro), newlyweds themselves, and partners in wildlife rescue and preservation.

While releasing one of their winged patients into the wild, Linda and Tulio spot a familiar cerulean feather: certain evidence that other blue macaws exist in this part of the Amazon. This is marvelous, breathtaking news, since Blu and Jewel were thought to be the last of their kind.

Jewel, in turn, has a much more personal reaction. Thanks to back-story cleverly supplied by co-scripters Saldanha, Don Rhymer and Yoni Brenner, we learn a key detail left undisclosed in the first film: that Jewel was snatched from an extended family — indeed, an entire flock — under grim circumstances. Faced with the possibility that some of her loved ones still might be alive, she insists on a trip to the Amazon wilds.

Blu, raised in the civilized wilds of suburban Minnesota, is less than thrilled.

It’s a clever plot device, given that Blu now is able to display a fresh set of insecurities and neuroses. The first film dealt with his inability to fly, and the courage he mustered — when circumstances were dire— to overcome fear and claim his winged birthright. But a city-fied bird, even one with new-found contentment in the sky, isn’t about to be comfortable in the jungle. Particularly one filled with creepy-crawly things such as snakes and spiders.

Jive bird-buddies Nico (Jamie Foxx) and Pedro ( aren’t much help; they also have little desire to leave the safety of civilization. The saliva-spewing bulldog Luiz (Tracy Morgan) doesn’t really care one way or the other, as long as he doesn’t get left behind again. Helpful wisdom comes from the sage toucan, Rafael (George Lopez), who advises Blu to put Jewel’s feelings first: “Happy wife ... happy life.”

And, so, sufficiently armed with a fanny-pack and a GPS, Blu reluctantly agrees to the trip, the rest of the gang gamely tagging along. Alas, they’re clandestinely joined by three pursuers, one with revenge on his mind: That would be Nigel (Jemaine Clement), the villainous white cockatoo left somewhat worse for wear, after being outsmarted in the previous film.

Nigel is accompanied by two newcomers: the love-struck Gabi (Kristin Chenoweth), a tiny poisonous frog who’d cheerfully dose Blu with her venom, if it would make Nigel happier; and Charlie, a mute, tap-dancing anteater with a remarkably dexterous tongue, whose willing assistance often is distracted by ant dinners.

Given Charlie’s Chaplinesque behavior and unexpectedly balletic grace, we can assume the filmmakers didn’t grant him that name accidentally. If Ice Age fans were disappointed because Rio lacked a surrogate Scrat, they’ll be delighted by Charlie. As I was, every time he appeared, impressive tongue employed for yet another amusing sight-gag.

But wait; that’s not all.

Indeed, this script is laden with villains, complications, setbacks and unexpected peril. Bad enough that Blu & Co. have Team Nigel at their flanks: Finally encountering Jewel’s tribe raises fresh crises, starting with her gruff father, Eduardo (Andy Garcia), who sees nothing to like in the domesticated Blu; and the amorous Roberto (Bruno Mars), who never got over his fondness for Jewel.

Then, too, Nico and Pedro are hoping to find their next Carnival star(s) by auditioning some untapped jungle talent.

On top of which, an illegal logging operation is getting perilously close to the blue macaws’ jungle homeland, and the thuggish foreman — Big Boss, voiced with appropriate malevolence by Miguel Ferrer — couldn’t care less if some birds get in the way. Or their human friends.

That’s probably enough melodrama for at least two films, but — to their credit — Saldanha, Rhymer and Brenner keep a steady hand on all these plot complications, while also granting enough time for additional character development.

The stand-out co-star, by far, is Chenoweth’s Gabi. The notion of an itty-bitty frog falling head over webbed heels for a bird 10 times her size is funny enough; the tragic Shakespearean tinge is even more amusing, since Gabi dare not touch Nigel, lest her toxic glands kill him. This leads to the film’s best song, the hilarious “Poisonous Love,” which derives much of its humor from the disconnect of a tiny frog graced with Chenoweth’s full-bodied belt of a voice.

Broadway theater fans already know this about Chenoweth, but it still never fails to startle me; at a diminutive 4-foot-11, she has an amazingly rich and robust singing voice.

She also dominates her duet with Clement during a parody-laden version of Gloria Gaynor’s rock anthem “I Will Survive,” intended here to explain Nigel’s thirst for revenge.

Intent notwithstanding, the bedraggled cockatoo simply isn’t the gleefully malicious force that he was in the first film. Now he’s more bark than bite, too easily distracted by his desire for performance glory and, yes, Shakespearean scene-stealing.

True evil belongs solely to human characters this time out, with Big Boss filling that bill quite nicely. And, once again, the environmental message is impossible to ignore. (One wonders how children raised on these two films and the likes of The Lorax will feel about such issues, when they mature into voting citizens.)

Eisenberg is once again ideal as the fussy, prissy, woefully anal-retentive Blu, still preferring never to stray beyond his carefully established comfort zone. Hathaway puts a lot of subtle emotion into her line readings, deftly conveying Jewel’s simultaneous yet mutually exclusive ties to Blu and her homeland.

Clement’s contemptuous disdain always raises a giggle, and Nigel’s anteater acolyte gets plenty of laughs without ever saying a word.

Foxx and once again make a great Mutt ’n’ Jeff pair as Nico and Pedro, while Lopez gets a cute running gag involving Rafael’s musically challenged wife.

I wish the slobbering Luiz had been granted more screen time, because Morgan’s always a hoot; we really feel for the poor pooch every time he mutters, “That’s messed up.” The effervescent Rita Moreno similarly gets short-shrifted, as Jewel’s Aunt Mimi.

I’m also not at all happy with Garcia’s line-readings: too stiff, too formal, too wooden. The character simply doesn’t work as intended.

Even so, this film closes with a show-stopping musical frolic every bit as vibrant as that which concluded the first Rio. You can’t help leaving with a smile, wiggling in time to the infectious samba beat. So while Rio 2 may not be quite as innovative as its predecessor, it’s just as fun.

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