In the annals of computer-generated family fare, we all know that Pixar reigns supreme. While DreamWorks may be their closest competitor, the former has yet to maintain the steady stream of quality coming out of John Lasseter’s camp. While a random great film is few and far between from other production houses (Rango), some can’t help but keep one step behind by continually playing it safe. Case in point would be Blue Sky Studios. And their latest venture, Rio, is no exception.
Maybe the main cause for concern behind Blue Sky’s quality lies solely in the hands of director Carlos Saldanha. There also could be some issues regarding what Fox Studios lets them get away with. I doubt founder Chris Wedge figured they’d always be one step behind in the realm of feature films. But when Saldanha has directed four of their six films, maybe it’s time to hand the reins over to someone else. While Rio is admittedly a step in the right direction, they still seem too preoccupied with over-the-top slapstick, pop culture, poop jokes, and stunt voice casting (all something DreamWorks is finally shying away from themselves).
In Rio, we are whisked away deep into the jungles of Rio de Janeiro. The local bird community has awoken for the day and are commencing into a joyous burst of song and dance. Fresh macaw hatchling Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) may be able to wiggle his tail feathers, but we quickly learn that he hasn’t learned to fly just yet. Before you can say, “Toucan Sam,” all of the birds, including Blu, are snatched up by poachers and loaded onto a plane for the States to be sold off as pets. But thanks to a red light in Moose Lake, MN, Blu is thrown from the truck and found in a snow bank by a little girl named Linda (voiced by Leslie Mann).
Linda and Blu live together harmoniously, so much so that they brush their teeth and beak together, and Blu gets to tag along to work with her at her very own bookstore. One morning, Tulio (voiced by Rodrigo Santoro) literally crashes into her store, as, being from Rio de Janeiro, he doesn’t know how to walk along icy sidewalks. Tulio has come to talk Linda into taking Blu to an aviary in Rio where he will mate with Jewel (voiced by Anne Hathaway), the only other living specimen of his kind, to save their species. Linda agrees very hesitantly but off they go, just in time for Carnival.
Before you know it, a bullish cockatoo named Nigel (perfectly voiced by Jemaine Clement), and a little street rat named Fernando (voiced by Jake T. Austin) has allowed Blu, Jewel, and all the rest of the birds to be stolen by a couple of bumbling smugglers to be sold off and exported by Sylvio (voiced by Bernardo de Paula). But eventually Blu and Jewel escape (cuffed together anyway) and meet up with toucan Rafael (voiced by George Lopez), and two other birds, canary Nico and cardinal Pedro (voiced by Jamie Foxx and will.i.am). Now they’re all off to break Blu and Jewel’s bonds with the help of a bulldog named Luiz (voiced by Tracy Morgan) and try to teach Blu how to fly as walking the streets of Rio just takes too flocking long.
If you can’t guess how everything will end up then you must be the target audience – i.e. under 10 years old. However, while the film may be on the boring side, it’s far from as plodding as Blue Sky’s last outing, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. Here it’s ultimately a few of the voice cast (Eisenberg, Mann, Clement and Hathaway) who manage to save the day, along with some surprisingly funny side characters. Who knew that Back to the Future’s own Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) as a caged bird would wind up to be such a hilarious gag.
It’s nice to see that some of the voice cast, (Clement again, Foxx, and will.i.am) were actually used for more than just their names in the credits (contributing at least one song to the soundtrack). Even Hathaway gets a brief chance to let her vocals fly. What’s even more surprising is how the film also tries to play out as part musical. However, it’s just another log on the fire to their never-ending display of ripping off recent films. You try telling me that Tulio doesn’t look a little like Flint from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or that Linda doesn’t more than resemble Susan from Monsters vs Aliens. And the aspect of integrating the soundtrack instead of just another barrage of pop songs was just recently done in Tangled, but I digress.
It’s also of note that there’s anywhere near this kind of quality coming from credited screenwriter Don Rhymer when the rest of his resume consists of all three Big Momma’s, Deck the Halls, The Honeymooners, and the sequels Agent Cody Banks 2 and The Santa Clause 2! Maybe it seems to be in animated fare where Rhymer belongs, between Rio and his last offering, Surf’s Up.
In the end, at least Rio is far less offensive than the year’s worst animated feature so far, Gnomeo & Juliet. But it’s a far cry from Oscar-worthy as well. What a shame that while Blue Sky doesn’t produce anywhere near the number of films as Pixar or DreamWorks, this is still the best they can do. When the best part of the film is the short that runs beforehand (Scrat’s Continental Crack-Up), which also ran in front of the Fox flop Gulliver’s Travels, I can’t say I blame them. At least now audiences will actually see it.
Photos courtesy Twentieth Century Fox