These days animated films can go one of two ways: either you’re making something original and potentially interesting, or you’re making a sequel to that something original and potentially interesting you made previously because there’s a studio behind it that likes money. Such is the story of Blue Sky Studios and filmmaker Carlos Saldanha. Several times now Saldanha and the very talented animators at Blue Sky have given us something interesting. This includes Ice Age in 2002, Robots in 2005 and Rio in 2011. And with the exception of one (the sadly underrated and clever Robots), they’ve come back for more every single time. Four times in the case of Ice Age. Why? Because kids like it, parents will pay for it and these movies sell toys of prehistoric squirrels just trying to find a nut.
Does the mere idea of a sequel discount a movie’s quality? No. Does the fact that they are treading on well-worn narrative ground take anything away from the vibrant animation? Not at all. These movies have plenty of right to exist. Most of them are financial, but some of them are creative. Still, that doesn’t make it any less sad to see talented teams doing pre-merchandising work when we know they’re capable of telling us original and unique stories. As I sat in a mostly empty Thursday evening screening of Saldanha and Blue Sky’s latest sequel, Rio 2, I was struck with a thought as that prehistoric squirrel scampered around the Blue Sky introduction logo: I wish that guy who co-directed Robots would come back and do something interesting.
He didn’t. And that’s fine. But a guy can hope…
The story of Rio 2 picks up not long after the end of the first film. The former human companion (don’t call him pet) known as Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) and the love of his life, the wild-born Jewel (voiced by Anne Hathaway) are living with their trio of kids in the Rio de Janeiro bird sanctuary set up by their human friends. There’s plenty of music and dancing and Carnival planning to be done — there’s even time for the birds to cook some pancakes. They have all this time because their human friends Linda (Leslie Mann) and Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) are off in the jungle releasing rehabilitated birds into the Amazon. Of course, everything changes when they stumble upon a previously lost colony of Blue Macaws.
This throws everything into chaos for the family unit. Ever the adventurous spirit, Jewel convinces Blu and the kids to join her on a long distance trip across Brazil to the Amazon in search of their lost extended family. This doesn’t go well with pancake chef Blu, as he’s more of a house bird anyway.
It’s right around this point in the story — somewhere well into the first act — where we begin to see the wonderful art from the team at Blue Sky. A montage of Blu and the family unit traveling across Brazil is impressive in the level of detail the give to each stop along the way. For a moment, we forget that we’re watching a bird with a fanny pack (classic dad move) and see that there’s some incredible art going on in the background. If Rio 2 has anything to offer those who enjoy the art of animation, it’s mostly in this 5 minute travel montage. The rest of the film is a lot of the same stuff we saw in its predecessor, just with far more birds.
A lot more birds. So many that it begins to become easy to lose our main characters in the chaos. Because they are all blue, after all. But one is Blu, the character. It’s just another thing we have to deal with as an audience. Those of us who are paying attention, at least. The little girl who spent most of the screening running up and down the empty aisles of the theater, she doesn’t care. She’ll take one plush Blue Macaw toy and a Slurpee and be on her way.
For those of us in it for the details, there are some fun additions to the cast. Andy Garcia voices the wild macaws’ leader and (gasp!) Jewel’s long-lost father who instantly disapproves of his daughter’s domesticated husband. Bruno Mars voices a dashing former sweetheart of Jewel’s with a song in his heart and several screws loose in his small bird brain. And Jemaine Clement shows back up as that insane cockatoo Nigel. Yes, he’s still alive because in the world of animated birds, death is never final. Each have very entertaining moments, as do a pair of turtles who do capoeira (that one got an unexpectedly out-loud laugh from yours truly), but all the really entertaining character moments are few and far between.
In the end, I couldn’t help but come home and instantly go back to my review of Rio in 2011. Because the experience feels so familiar from one film to the other. In that review, I praised the vibrant colors and zest of Rio that permeated the movie. There was Sergio Mendes produced music and a sense of life that was infectious. Rio 2 has some of that, but it’s lost a lot of magic. Perhaps it’s some of the novelty wearing off. Perhaps it’s a weaker, more cookie-cutter narrative. Whatever it is, and it might end up being different things for different people, Rio 2 feels less like a new adventure and a lot like an excuse to do more of the same. It’s a classic criticism of animated sequels, but that doesn’t make it less true. Just like a second movie doesn’t make Jesse Eisenberg’s singing less awkward.
The Upside: The Blue Sky animators are still immensely talented, much of which is shown off early in the film.
The Downside: The rhythm is gone from this franchise, like so many before it, even though the beat goes on.
On the Side: Kristin Chenoweth voices a poisonous frog. This is the most uncomfortable combination a movie has found between something I love and something that terrifies me this year, and I’m counting the movie with Amy Pond from Doctor Who and a creepy mirror.