Rio (2011)

Review first published by EyeforFilm

It is a jungle out there in the world of animated animals, and sometimes only the fittest – or at least the fastest – survive in an overcrowded marketplace where every dollar counts.

Take, for example, a slick CG feature released in early 2011, whose one-word title begins with an R and ends with an O, and whose story is concerned with the adventures of a pet accidentally unleashed into the wilds and set on a journey of self-discovery, variously aided and impeded by an assortment of other creatures. Well, that is Carlos Saldanha’s Rio all over – but it equally describes Gore Verbinski’s Rango. Yet despite these broad similarities in plot, both films can probably just about coexist only because they occupy markedly different territories in terms of their visual texture, their tone and their target demographic, with Rango aimed at a more adult, or at least more oddball, audience.

In general, though, when two closely related species emerge at the same time, one tends to achieve dominance over the other. So when Antz (1998) competed with A Bug’s Life (1998), when Shark Tale (2004) tried to rival Finding Nemo (2003), when Despicable Me (2010) pounded it out with Megamind (2010), there were winners and losers as cinemagoers applied their own form of natural selection – and sometimes projects are abandoned before the fight can even get properly started.

Rio tells of a pair of rare blue-tinged animals, one a pet, the other wild, brought together by a biologist who hopes to rescue their species from extinction; the creatures escape, and as the more domesticated of the two is shown the world beyond his complacent captivity, they fall in love. That was also going to be the plot of Pixar’s long-planned film Newt, whose close similarity to Rio (and vague resemblance to 2010’s Alpha And Omega) no doubt contributed to its official cancellation in 2010.

The irony in all this is that while Pixar has now decided instead to concentrate on arguably lazy self-replication with forthcoming cashcow sequels like Cars 2 and Monsters Inc. 2, Rio itself, though coming from Blue Sky Studios (for which Saldanha previously directed the Ice Age trilogy and Robots), is something of a Disney clone – as becomes clear from the colourful singing-and-dancing extravaganza with which it opens.

It seems that, in the rush for cultural dominance, everyone is trying to occupy the middle ground – and while Rio is fast-paced, breathtaking to look at and certainly amusing, there is also undeniably something about it that feels a little too safe, as though the film, like the blue macaw at its centre, is nervous about taking off from its familiar environs for loftier realms.

Meet Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg). Poached as a fledgling from his Brazilian jungle home, this macaw has ended up in snowy small-town Minnesota where, under the loving ownership of bluestocking Linda (Leslie Mann), he has grown into a bookish, flightless and somewhat neurotic homebody who loves his creature comforts. When nerdy Brazilian ornithologist Túlio (Rodrigo Santoro) persuades Linda to bring Blu to Rio de Janeiro to breed with the only other remaining blue macaw, Jewel (Anne Hathaway), sparks do not exactly fly between these two ‘lovebirds’ – until, that is, they are stolen from the aviary by local poachers.

Now chained to one another like The Defiant Ones (1958), the couple must work together if they are to succeed in their flight – and while they are relentlessly pursued by the poachers’ bullying cockatoo Nigel (Jemaine Clement) and his semi-voluntary army of larcenous monkeys, our birds will receive a little help from the toucan Rafael (George Lopez) and his avian friends Pedro (Will.i.Am) and Nico (Jamie Foxx), as well as from bulldog-with-an-identity-crisis Luiz (Tracy Morgan).

Once writer Don Rhymer (Surf’s Up, Big Momma’s House) has set up his menagerie of wacky animal characters, raising the odd laugh is like shooting fish – or at least monkeys – in a barrel. Once Rio has settled into its status as a romantic chase caper, the breakneck momentum comes ready-fitted. And the appeal of a family film is never harmed by the addition of some voguish (yet vague) commentary on the ecological relationship between humans and other animals. Is anyone ever really in doubt that no animal will be seriously harmed in the making of the film, or that Linda and Túlio are made for each other, or that Blu will eventually manage to find his mojo and get his wing up?

If in all these respects Saldanha’s formular film appears merely to be cruising on autopilot, where it comes into its own is in its deployment of truly spectacular 3D. Using the panorama of Guanabara Bay and the city of Rio as a richly layered stage (and launching pad), Saldhana lets his animated ‘camera’ swoop and soar and duck and dive in impossible tracking shoots that take full advantage of the dramatic depth of field. The metropolis may here be turned into a picture-postcard caricature, with only the character of little orphan Fernando (Jake T Austin) to hint at the vast economic and social divisions behind all Rio’s sun, surf and sambas – but that is not to deny this film its visual splendour, coming with enough oomph and awe to send any viewer away with the birds.

Anton Bitel