Stop me if you’ve heard this all before. In the world of big screen animation, there’s Pixar and there’s everybody else. There’s something special about those Toy tale telling animators from Emeryville, something that indicates up front that each of their films has the potential to be a deeply emotional experience for an audience of any age. This review is not about one of those kinds of movies, nor is it about Pixar. It’s about Blue Sky Studios and their new film Rio. But it’s important to note the difference that Pixar films have up front, because the desire to compare and contrast is unavoidable. And it’s that emotional element that could be the only differentiator between this, Blue Sky’s best effort to date, and the industry’s gold standard.
In fact, not only is the emotional element the key differentiator between Rio and films like Wall-E or Up, it also feels like the only thing missing. There’s something beautiful and classy in the way Blue Sky, the studio behind the Ice Age trilogy, Horton Hears a Who and Titan A.E., makes their movies. The make kids’ movies, sure. But they also make films that could endure the test of time, as they are never reliant on cheap, or pop-culture referential humor. They make movies that work for their laughs, are animated brilliantly and that tell simple stories. And that’s something to be applauded, as they are so close to delivering something great. With Rio, they are as close as they’ve ever been to something special. And what’s most surprising is that they aren’t even doing it by presenting us with anything new.
Take the film’s story for example. You might remember something along these lines from the Ice Age films. Jesse Eisenberg voices Blu, a macaw who is smuggled away from the lush jungle around Rio de Janeiro as a baby bird and sent to live a domesticated, but enjoyable life in rural Minnesota. But one day he and his owner Linda, voiced by Leslie Mann, are visited by a Brazilian ornithologist named Tulio (voiced by Rodrigo Santoro), who has identified Blu as the last male of his species. He’d like to take Blu back to Rio and get him together with Jewel (voiced by Anne Hathaway), the species’ last female, to try and make some macaw babies and save the beautiful birds from extinction. But things don’t go as planned. Jewel, a free spirit, wants nothing to do with this pet bird (who has never even learned to fly). That is, until they are once again captured by smugglers and must band together in order to escape being sold off to the highest bidder.
Last of a species, fighting to survive, reluctant lovers tale. Stop me if you’ve heard this all before.
Even though Rio, directed by Ice Age co-director Carlos Saldanha, is spinning a familiar yarn, it gets major points for doing so in a beautiful and vibrant way. To their credit, the animators at Blue Sky capture all the colors and grande details that you’d expect to see on a trip to Rio during Carnivale. So brightly colored is the landscape and birds that inhabit it, that you might find yourself dizzied by the spectacle. Not overdone, not overly flashy, but classy and finely tuned, the visual aesthetic of this film is perhaps the most colorful, vivacious thing you’ll see on the big screen this year.
Rio also gets points for charisma, as seen in its talented voice cast. Jesse Eisenbird is charming in his own nerdy way, channeling his character from Zombieland, if said character weren’t fighting zombies but instead living as a tropical bird in a bookstore in Minnesota. Anne Hathaway is surprisingly delightful and at times almost unrecognizable with her voice work. If I hadn’t just told you that it’s her, you might not know. You’d just see the character and know that you’ve heard that voice somewhere before. And finally, there is Jemaine Clement. He voices Nigel, a dirty, vile cockatoo that works alongside the Brazilian bird smugglers. A former star of stage and screen, Nigel is a bitter, nasty old bird hell-bent on making all the other birds of the world look as ugly as he’s become. Clement’s voice is the perfect match, calculated and vicious. He becomes the perfect ugly villain raging against a world of beauty. He’s also great in song.
Ah yes, there are songs. Both from Clement and Jaime Foxx, who voices one of the birds that helps Blu and Jewel along the way (he is joined by will.i.am and George Lopez). Three or four major musical numbers are sprinkled throughout, featuring songs from the mind of Brazilian legend Sergio Mendes. It lends a level of authenticity to the flair of the Brazilian setting and keeps things high-energy where the story fails to move things along. The kids will love all of the music to which they can shake their booties and whatnot.
It’s all wrapped into a tight 96-minute package that is at it’s heart a fun experience. It’s not an emotional tale that universally (and strongly) appeals to all ages, but it’s good clean fun. Fun that the older kids among us will appreciate for being such a brilliant, beautifully animated spectacle of color and zest. To their credit, the folks at Blue Sky have made a departure from the ever-tiring world of Ice Age and moved on to something a bit more inventive and dynamic. Now if only they could stop telling the same damned over and over again, they just might go from good to great.
The Upside: Brilliant colors, magnificently smooth animation that creates a world populated by charming characters and vile villainy. It has all the spirit and zest of Rio, including the musical stylings of Brazlian legend Sergio Mendes.
The Downside: It’s an all too familiar retread of a storyline Blue Sky Studios has done several times over. And in the end, it’s a film designed mostly for the kids, and not their adult companions.
On the Side: Director Carlos Saldanha was the animation supervisor for Blue Sky Studios when they worked on one of their earlier big screen projects, a little drama you may know called Fight Club.