Blue Sky Studio’s RIO immediately reminded me of Disney’s SALUDOS AMIGOS and THE THREE CABALLEROS for no reason other than the facts that all three films are animated, set in Latin America countries, and all feature birds. Blue Sky Studios continues to be the little animation studio that could (not so little really, considering it has a nice distribution deal with 20th Century Fox), having put out commercial successes such as the ICE AGE series, HORTON HEARS A WHO!, and now RIO. Lacking the name brand recognition of DreamWorks Animation or Pixar/Disney, Blue Sky nevertheless has managed to compete with the more popular studios and its done it entirely outside of California (in New York and, after its more recent move, in Connecticut). Like DreamWorks Animation, the studio’s output tends to run along the safe and well-traveled path, producing movies that are safe box office bets rather than more unconventional stories that Pixar is more apt to do.

RIO is about a bird, specifically a blue macaw named Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) who is abducted by poachers when he’s a baby. Blu ends up in Minnesota after falling out of a truck that is presumably transporting him to a pet store. He’s found by a lady bookshop owner (Leslie Mann), who adopts and takes care of him. Years go by and one day a ornithologist (Rodrigo Santoro) from Brazil visits the bookshop, looking for Blu. He explains to the owner that Blu is a rare species of bird and that he would like to return him to Brazil so that he can mate with a female macaw and increase the macaw population. Blu and his owner reluctantly go to Brazil where Blu meets his female counterpart, Jewel (Anne Hathaway). However, before they know it, the two birds are kidnapped by some poachers. The film mainly centers around the birds escaping the poachers and Blu attempting to find his owner. Along the way, he and Jewel meet up with other species of exotic birds, who help them battle the poachers.

First and foremost, RIO serves as a gorgeous travelogue for Rio de Janeiro. Director Carlos Saldanha (who is Brazilian) set out to lovingly portray his hometown in the most beautiful light possible. This means you see the beaches, the lush green mountains, and the festive Brazilian culture that culminates in the city’s annual Carnival festival. What we don’t really see (or we do in a very Disneyfied manner) are the slums, the crime, and the homeless youth that plagues the city and has given Rio de Janeiro a reputation for being a dangerous city. Obviously, I wasn’t expecting a realistic portrayal of Rio, especially in a children’s movie. However, being aware of the city is really like, you can’t help but think in watching the movie that we’re being a little manipulated by seeing a whitewashed version of the city.

RIO’s plot lacks any originality, which was to be expected. Where the film succeeds is more in the plot’s execution and in its visual eye candy. As soon as the ornithologist shows up in Minnesota and presents his dilemma, the remainder of the plot becomes painfully predictable. You know the bird is going to learn to fly, win the girl, his owner will win the guy, and the poachers will be defeated. The plot’s setup feels like its taken out of an animation story manual. It would have been so refreshing to, for once, not see a romantic subplot. Especially in a kid flick. Unless the romance is meant to keep the parents interested, I don’t remember every caring when I was a kid about whether the boy and the girl would fall in love in an animated film. Worse, RIO contains two romantic subplots. A stronger focus on the homeless boy and a development of a more extensive subplot around him would have made for a far more interesting film (not to mention that it would have given the film more emotional weight and kids could better connect with a boy without a home or parents than with a pair of love stories).

RIO is further hindered by poor character development that, with the exception of Blu and Nigel, lacks dimensionality, originality, or humor. For one, it doesn’t take long for Jesse Eisenberg’s whiny voice to grate on your nerves. The young Woody Allen schtick only goes so far before you begin rooting for the poachers to accomplish their goal. At the same time, the character’s struggles with learning to fly and to gain confidence in himself make for a well-rounded character that create somewhat humorous situations. As is true with many films, the most interesting character in the film is Nigel (Jemaine Clement), the evil cockatoo who, along with the poachers, pursues Blu and Jewel. Clement deliciously embraces the aristocratic, selfish, and wholly evil qualities of the once-famous television star that the bird used to be. There is a musical number in the film performed by Nigel that was wonderful and it reminded me of the number in THE LION KING where we’re introduced to Scar.

The rest of the cast is comprised of one-dimensional characters that are caricatures we’ve seen many times in other animated films. The filmmakers cast many comedians to give the film its humor. Comedians such as George Lopez, Jamie Foxx, Tracy Morgan, and Wanda Sykes also lend their voices to the characters. They provide a few laughs, but their potential to make us laugh is clearly hindered by the film’s rating and, as a result, I found most of the film’s humor as not very humorous.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the musical numbers contained in RIO. Over the past decade, we have seen far fewer musical numbers in animated films, which is a real shame. I miss those days in the late 80s and early 90s when the famous team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman created memorable musical numbers for Disney. RIO has one particular number called “Real in Rio” that opens and ends the film. It doesn’t quite reach the quality of Menken/Ashman’s works, but it’s a beautiful song that sets the tropical tempo of the movie (it was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song, losing out to THE MUPPETS’ “Man or Muppet”).

RIO is largely an unforgettable film that, given its locale, had huge potential to be more than it ended up being. I feel that the filmmakers initially came up with the idea of setting a movie in Rio de Janeiro and were unable to create a high concept idea befitting the film’s locale. What we end up with is a luscious looking film lacking any heart and excitement. The frenetic pace of the movie only serves to hide the mediocre story underneath it and we are ultimately served with a film that reeks of Saturday morning cartoon mindlessness. Better luck next time, Blue Sky.

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