A rather misleading title is just one reason to be slightly suspicious of “Rio 2,” an eye-popping, ear-tickling animated sequel that labors to fold a cheeky family sitcom, an earnest environmental primer, an exotic jungle tour, a broad survey of popular music and an avian remake of “Meet the Parents” into one bright and noisy package. Mining an unwieldy number of domestic and ecological dramas from the continuing saga of a rare Brazilian blue macaw, here venturing with his new family into the perilous Amazon rainforest, this hyperactive toon extravaganza has color, flair and energy to burn. But it’s the sort of relentless juggling act that finally proves more exhausting than exhilarating as it lectures you about respecting Mother Nature one minute, knocks you over with a Gloria Gaynor cover the next, and squeezes in a lot of questionable comic relief in between.
For those not inclined to resist this over-insistent brand of educational entertainment, Fox’s latest collaboration with Blue Sky Studios should deliver still more of the winning formula that made the moderately charming “Rio” a surprise 2011 hit, grossing $486 million worldwide. Of that amount, about $341 million came from overseas, and “Rio 2” is already off to a similarly sunny start internationally, having grossed more than $10 million in a few territories (it opens March 27 in Brazil and April 11 Stateside). What may lend the film an extra commercial boost is an aggressively pre-marketed soundtrack that offers a vigorous fusion of hip-hop beats, samba riffs and Broadway-style showstoppers (once again overseen by composer John Powell, executive music producer Sergio Mendes and songwriter Carlinhos Brown).
As a result, “Rio 2” plays even more like a full-blown musical than its predecessor did, reflecting a general spirit of inflation that’s evident from the opening scenes: more jubilant revelry in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, more fireworks exploding over Christ the Redeemer, and more town-vs.-country lifestyle angst for Blu (again appealingly voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) and Jewel (the sweet-toned Anne Hathaway), the extremely rare blue macaws who were united at the end of the first film. Now they’ve got three cute, spirited chicks (Rachel Crow, Pierce Gagnon and Amandla Stenberg) and are living more or less happily ever after, although the Minnesota-raised Blu still exasperates the jungle-born Jewel with his reliance on man-made gadgets and amenities; instead of fetching fresh Brazil nuts for breakfast, the way she does, he’ll cook the kids pancakes instead.
Part of Jewel longs for the family to return to nature, and she gets her wish when Blu’s former owner, Linda (Leslie Mann), and her wildlife-enthusiast husband, Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro), discover evidence that the blue macaws may be not be quite so endangered a species as initially feared. Eager to reunite with others of their own kind, Jewel convinces Blu and the kids to embark with her on a 2,000-mile journey into the rainforest where the macaws were spotted, braving such dangers as boa constrictors, tarantulas and piranhas. Also along for the trip, naturally, are party-hearty toucan Rafael (George Lopez) and that rap-happy duo of cardinal Pedro (will.i.am) and canary Nico (Jamie Foxx), there to ensure that not a single moment passes unsullied by rat-a-tat banter or random beatboxing. (Mercifully, Luiz, the slobbering bulldog voiced by Tracy Morgan, is left behind in Rio for most of the pic’s duration.)
The screenplay (by returning scribe Don Rhymer and three new writers), fleshed out from a story by Brazilian-born director Carlos Saldanha (taking the helming reins once more), does a shrewd enough job of building on the central tension of the first film: Blu may have left the pleasures of human captivity behind in “Rio,” but this nerd-bird has yet to give up his creature comforts entirely. He’s reminded of this when the macaw tribe they stumble upon turns out to be Jewel’s long-lost, presumed-dead family, ruled over by her proud, authoritarian father, Eduardo (Andy Garcia), who is delighted by his daughter’s return but is rather less taken with her former housepet (er, “companion”) of a husband. Not helping matters is the presence of Jewel’s childhood playmate Roberto (Bruno Mars), now a soft-crooning Rico Suave type who understandably brings out Blu’s jealous side.
That’s more than enough dramatic conflict to sustain a 101-minute kids’ movie, especially when almost every plot turn is signaled by some sort of musical performance or interlude. “O vida,” sung in both Portuguese and English, accompanies Blu and his family’s journey from Rio to the rainforest, while “Beautiful Creatures,” performed by the Brazilian body-percussion group Barbatuques, is a lovely tribute to the macaws’ natural way of life, illustrated in synchronized flying routines that grant full expression to the film’s vibrant colors and exquisite textures (which look particularly striking and tactile in 3D). Elsewhere, Hathaway gets to show off her superb singing voice in the lovely lullaby “Don’t Go Away,” while other cast members, including will.i.am, Foxx, Crow, Garcia and Rita Moreno (cast here as Jewel’s aunt), strut their stuff in “Batucada Familia,” a climactic number set during an Amazon version of Carnaval.
The music is lovely, if rarely memorable (there’s nothing here to give the “Frozen” soundtrack a run for its money). But “Rio 2” begins to feel like a narrative blender gone berserk as subplot after subplot takes the stage. First, the eco-conscious Linda and Tulio run afoul of some shady deforesters encroaching on the macaws’ habitat; then, in an unrelated and ultimately unnecessary strand, Blu and Jewel’s old nemesis, the malevolent cockatoo Nigel (Jemaine Clement), hatches a deranged revenge scheme that for some reason occasions a hammy rendition of “I Will Survive.” His accomplice is Gabi (Kristin Chenoweth), a strikingly visualized pink dart frog who’s madly in love with Nigel, but whose venomous flesh makes it impossible for her to act on her cross-species desires; their nutty Mrs. Lovett-Sweeney Todd dynamic reaches an amusingly demented peak in Gabi’s solo number, “Poisonous Love,” performed with showtune-style verve by the very game Chenoweth.
Sounds fun, no? Sometimes it is. But it’s typical of the competing agendas in “Rio 2” that the experience of watching it is sometimes like attending a block party at a wildlife preserve where someone barks orders at you every five minutes: Don’t cut down that tree! Put away that GPS/smartphone/iPod! Happy wife, happy life! Look out for that cockatoo! As Saldanha and his collaborators orchestrate a reconciliation between domesticated Blu and his more rugged relatives, leading to an epic men-vs.-macaws battle that’s just a few bodies shy of Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” the final lessons of this silly, overstuffed story — protect your family and protect the environment, all while dancing the night away — feel by turns inarguable, well-meaning, and a bit harder to swallow than they should be.