Once upon a time, I dated a guy whose cockatiel had a bit of a masturbation problem; even worse, the damn bird made a habit of staring at me while doing it. Needless to say, the relationship soon hit an impasse, but I’ve never forgotten that evil eye of the feathery one. Exactly what does this anecdote have to do with Rio? Both feature birds that, figuratively speaking, made me want to take immediate flight into the nearest plate glass window.
In Rio, our tale begins by introducing a socially awkward macaw named Blu (Jesse Eisenberg, naturally) that lives in Minnesota with his owner, Linda (Leslie Mann), who affectionately calls her pet a “nerd bird” because he can’t fly (even though he’s very studied in matters of “quadrated vector angles”), but he can fetch Linda’s breakfast for her every morning. Sure, it’s unbelievable, but this movie comes from Blue Sky Studios production, and this preposterousness is nothing that you wouldn’t normally expect from the people who brought you the Ice Age franchise, the last installment of which told the tale of dinosaurs and mammoths living together in temporal harmony. On board once again is Carlos Saldanha, who directed all of the Ice Age movies as well, and Rio’s utterly inept screenplay comes courtesy of four writers, including Don Rhymer (Big Mommas’s House; The Santa Clause 2) plus Joshua Sternin and Jeffrey Ventimila (The Tooth Fairy; Yogi Bear). Essentially, this thing was doomed from the very beginning.
Moving on within the scale of extreme unbelievability, Blu and Linda’s domestic harmony eventually gets interrupted when an odd ornithologist, Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro), just shows up one day and informs Linda that Blu is the very last cerulean-shaded male macaw in existence. Tulio implores the pair to come to Rio so that Blu can mate with his cerulean-shaded female macaw, Jewel (Anne Hathaway), and perpetuate the species. The trouble is that Jewel is not impressed by Blu’s very un-birdlike ways, so she runs like hell, which wouldn’t be such a problem if Jewel’s ankle wasn’t chained to that of her non-flying companion. Cue an endless series of footbound chase scenes through the various parades of the Rio Carnival. It’s wacky. It’s madcap. It’s fruitlessly exhausting.
Within the titular destination, the camera often swoops and soars just like a bird would, and the panoramas of Rio de Janeiro and its surrounding areas could accurately be described as “breathtaking” by easily impressed types. The film explores both Rio’s flawlessly white beaches and impressive skyscrapers and also its lowly favela where families struggle on a daily basis. Some small measure of credit is due to this brief acknowledgment of the city’s socioeconomic strata, but it’s quite strange that this Rio is primarily inhabited by, uh, white people. Luckily (or not), the black and Hispanic quotas are filled by members of the animal kingdom, primarily in the form of some streetwise friends — Pedro (will.i.am) the cardinal, Nico (Jamie Foxx) the canary, Rafael (George Lopez) the toucan, and Luiz (Tracy Morgan) the bulldog — that help Blu and Jewel in their attempts to reunite with Linda while simultaneously aiming to avoid some evil bird smugglers, who are receiving aid from a villainous cockatoo named (Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords, as if your kids even care). It’s never a matter of whether this story will have a happy and predictable ending but only a question of whether the audience will first be driven mad by the incessantly thumping samba and assortment of “spirited” musical numbers.
The voice work here, if you can call it that, is highly uneven. The two leads don’t stretch their proverbial wings at all. Eisenberg is doing his classic socially awkward shtick (to be fair, it would have been worse coming from Michael Cera), and Hathaway tries far too hard and exudes a very desperate sort of energy akin to the infamous “brown duck” from Oscar night. Faring slightly better are Morgan and Clement in supporting roles that are just not enough to outweigh the needless mediocrity that persists throughout the picture. With that said, any child under the age of seven should thrill to the sight of all of these pretty anythings echoing within an endless stream of animal slapstick, but older children and adults just won’t see the point. And that’s just it, for Rio is a very pointless movie (other than a vague lesson about courage when Blu learns to get his shit together and make like a real bird) and just another excuse to make parents take their kids to the movies. Especially egregious is the attempt to sell this film in “eye-popping” 3D (with necessarily dimmer colors) when color is such a huge element of the film’s limited appeal. Hell, you’d be far better off skipping this one and watching Rango again.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.