Like its flight-challenged parrot protagonist, “Rio” takes a while to get off the ground but manages to soar by the end. Latest outing for Fox’s toon shingle Blue Sky Studios (the “Ice Age” franchise) has plenty of pro polish and strikes a canny balance between parent-pleasing and kid-skewed humor, even when the script hits a few air pockets. Most rugrats will be too distracted by the dazzling colors to notice the glitches, while pic’s comic yet culturally sensitive use of its Latin American setting may give it a slight edge over its rivals internationally. Pic goes out April 15 Stateside.
Captured by bird smugglers from his Brazilian rainforest home before he can learn to use his wings, cerulean-colored macaw Blu (voiced, a little mechanically, by Jesse Eisenberg) falls off a truck in snowy Moose Lake, Minn., where local girl Linda (Leslie Mann) finds him and gives him a home. As the years pass, he becomes her treasured companion, capable of making toast but not, despite hours of study, of taking flight.
One day, out of nowhere, a Brazilian ornithologist named Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) shows up at Linda’s bookstore and tells them Blu may be the very last male of his species. (Smarter kids and adults will wonder how he tracked Blu down to Moose Lake, one of several unexplained screenplay lacunae.) Tulio asks Linda to bring Blu to his institute in Rio de Janeiro to mate with Jewel (Anne Hathaway), his female macaw, and Linda, a shy homebody just like her nerdy bird, somewhat reluctantly agrees.
Feisty, freedom-loving Jewel is unimpressed by Blu’s feeble attempts to pitch woo, and can think only of breaking out of her cage. She gets out, but not as she would have liked, when she and Blu are captured and chained together by another gang of bird smugglers led by Marcel (Carlos Ponce), whose highest-ranking lieutenant is an ugly, psychotic cockatoo named Nigel (Jemaine Clement).
Blu and Jewel manage to escape — on foot, since Blu can’t fly — and the rest of the pic is effectively one long pursuit, with Nigel and his baddies tailing the birds through Rio just as Carnival is about to start. Breathers are taken for comic and musical interludes involving some caporeira-capering marmosets and a sunset serenade from friendly canary Nico (Jamie Foxx), with rapping assist from cardinal Pedro (will.i.am) and romantic advice from toucan Rafael (George Lopez).
Following an odd but well-established tradition in mainstream animation, the protags have plain American accents (even supposedly Brazilian-reared Jewel), while the supporting characters are mainly voiced by Latin American and African-American thesps. Pic will no doubt draw accusations of stereotyping, with some justification, given how much emphasis it lays on Brazilians’ love of dancing, soccer and flirting. That said, there’s something admirable in the way “Rio” shows, with a light hand, the city’s impoverished side through a subplot about an orphaned favela urchin (Jake T. Austin). It’s not exactly “City of God,” but there’s at least some acknowledgment that life’s not all about samba and sunbathing in Rio.
As befits a film set in the tuneful city’s streets, music reps one of the strongest elements here, with an eclectic score that features original compositions, deft fusion remixes (one produced by will.i.am himself) and classic samba standards like Sergio Mendes’ “Mas que nada.” The musical-theater-style songs have a droll wit, especially Nigel’s cackling proclamation of evil, “Pretty Bird” (“Who said that about me?/I’ll have you rotisseried,” he snarls at his chicken backup singers), and the choreography, if that’s the right word, is aces. Thesping is largely strong, especially from a perky Hathaway, well experienced by now in character voicing.
Pic looks terrific. Deserving special praise are the lighting effects, which underscore mood and add realism through subtle adjustments of palette, saturation and contrast. As the film nears its Carnival climax, the colors become richer and stronger, enhancing the sense of excitement. Character design is a bit less confidently executed, leaving Blu and particularly Jewel less endearing and expressive than the mammalian creatures in helmer Carlos Saldanha’s “Ice Age” pics, though birds are hard to make cuddly to begin with; technically, pic seems to overcompensate for this problem with hyperrealistic feather and fur textures.
An intense depth-of-focus effect brings the city itself to rich life, especially in the aerial scenes. Stereoscopic effects in the 3D version caught were smoothly rendered; much play is made with perspective, particularly when the birds fly around Rio’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue, to the point where parts of the pic may look odd in 2D.