“Rio” is one of those films that sneaks up on you. You are watching it, enjoying it, appreciating that it is entertaining and not trying to hard, and then as it steers itself towards its final moments, you find yourself a bit bummed that it is over.
As a young girl, Linda (Leslie Mann) discovers a box on the street containing a baby blue macaw. And so naturally, Linda keeps the bird as her own. Jumping forward to present day, Linda owns a little book store and she and her macaw, Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) are inseparable. They brush their teeth together, work as a team in making breakfast for each other and in all ways compliment one another perfectly. Linda leads a fairly simple life and Blu is not only her pet bird but also her best and only friend. Blu has become so domesticated that he has never learned to fly and has no desire to ever learn or try. His life is with Linda and his life is perfect.Linda and Blu’s world is turned upside down when Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) enters their life. Tulio spots Blu in the storefront window and bursts into the book store and simply cannot contain himself with excitement. Although his sales pitch initially comes off a bit sketchy and off-putting, he eventually informs Linda that he has been traveling thousands of miles for a bird like Blu. As Blu has been living the domesticated life with Linda, it turns out that the macaw population is near complete and total extinction. Tulio runs a Brazilian animal sanctuary and has the last known female macaw in his possession. After much convincing, Linda agrees to travel with Blu to the sanctuary in Rio de Janiero to see if a connection can be made between the birds, the final and desperate last step in attempting to preserve the macaw population.
Once in Rio, Linda and Blu are awestruck by a world they have never imagined. Animals are singing, Carnivale is happening all around them, and the world is as alive as Linda and Blu have ever seen. Once at the sanctuary, Blu is dropped into a bird-friendly environment and immediately falls for the beautiful female macaw, Jewel (Anne Hathaway). Blu’s excitement is suddenly muted when he learns that Jewel is unhappy in her surroundings and is desperately trying to escape from the sanctuary. Needless to say, she has no interest in making any new friendships, macaw or otherwise.
When another rescued bird, Nigel, a cockatoo, turns out to not be the sickly bird he appears to be, smugglers become involved and the story slides into more of an animated adventure tale. An orphaned boy (Jake T. Austin) who takes delivery jobs for the smugglers, stumbles upon the sanctuary and becomes an unlikely ally for Tulio and Linda. Eventually toucans, bulldogs, other native birds, and even a gang of ruthless marmosets all fall into the mix as Blu and Linda try to save themselves, their fellow sanctuary friends, and Blu attempts to find the “rhythm of his heart” in overcoming his fears of flying.
One of the things that strikes you from the outset is how well made “Rio” is. The film is brilliantly drawn and created with as vibrant a color palette as you are likely to find in any recent animated film. Even with a dimmer and suppressed 3-D visual, “Rio” is a joy to watch and it reaps great visual rewards.
If you are familiar with Jesse Eisenberg’s work as Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network”, his now-unmistakable drone and diction may not seem to match with a rare and prized blue macaw. Eisenberg is subtle and effective in dancing around the words written by Don Rhymer and conveys a nice combination of anxiety, eagerness, and a likability one may not expect from him. He strikes a nice chemistry with Anne Hathaway, who again reminds us of her underrated sense of comedic timing and sensibilities.
With the story focused on Blu and Jewel for a great deal of time, there is not a whole lot for the supporting characters to do here. Jamie Foxx and will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas as Nico and Pedro, respectively, are a frenzied pair of birds who talk fast and lead us through a song or two. George Lopez has some funny moments as a toucan father overwhelmed by countless young toucans. Leslie Mann and Rodrigo Santoro play well off one another as Linda and Tulio and the film, assisted by effective vocal work, draws you in with its warm and inviting vocal and visual tone.
I do want to mention that Jemaine Clement, best known for his work on the HBO series “Flight of the Conchords” is tremendously entertaining as the villainous cockatoo Nigel. He delivers his lines expertly and even scores a Conchords-esque rap/sung parody piece that fans of the series will find most entertaining. Clement steals the show, not surprising perhaps if you are familiar with his other work.
“Rio” never sets out to be anything more than a family film with some comedy, music, and light adventure thrown in. I can understand complaints that the film is too simple, safe, and rather bland in its final presentation. Yet, I distance myself from that view because I never had the impression that “Rio” wanted to be anything other than a nice escape for families. “Rio” is a nice reminder that simple is sometimes better.