3 stars (out of 4)
The animation crew behind Ice Age heads south to shake a tail feather in riotously colourful Rio, but the by-the-books story shows Pixar’s spot at the top of the animation heap still remains supreme.
Not that Rio is cocka-doo-doo — far from it. A superbly splashy opening samba number with every feathered superstar in the rainforest doing conga duty is followed by genuinely touching scenes that show us a boy and his dog have nothing on the bonds between a gal and her macaw.
It’s a promising beginning but the human side of this animation doesn’t get the proper follow-through that could have elevated Rio to higher skies.
We meet Blu (a nerd bird given the appropriate furrowed-brow tone by The Social Network’s Jesse Eisenberg), who survived a scary rainforest poaching to end up in snowy Minnesota safe in the warm arms of equally nerdy Linda (Leslie Mann).
Blu is perfectly happy being the rare bird in Linda’s urban life, until ornithologist Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) arrives from Rio with the news Blu is the last of his kind — except for the female of the species back in Brazil.
And these two kids just have to get together.
Jewel (Anne Hathaway, who sings as well as talks) is a high-flying free bird who has no time for domestic life and has even less interest in propagating the species with a fellow creature who — horrors! — can’t even fly.
“Pet!” she spits at Blu in the ultimate put-down. She’s breaking out of this cage and it looks like Blu is along for the ride.
The city is preparing for its famous Carnival explosion of song, dance and crazy costumes, but the escapees can’t stop to samba.
They’re headed for the jungle, despite Blu’s worries about everything from spiders to missing his non-feathered friend, Linda. Their treetop dreams are stopped short by poachers, aided by delightfully evil baggy-eyed cockatoo voiced by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement.
Blu and Jewel get some help from a slobbering bulldog (Tracy Morgan), a henpecked toucan voiced by George Lopez and hip-beaked street fowl (Jamie Foxx along with will.i.am, who plays a flapper who is clearly based on the iPhone/iPad gaming sensation, Angry Birds).
No coincidence there’s a Rio version of the game.
Rio takes on a fairy-tale quality with the animator’s palette and does look Disneyland lovely – 3-D spins around Christ the Redeemer via hang-glider are impressive — although Brazilian native son, director Carlos Saldanha (the Ice Age franchise), acknowledges it’s not all sambas and cacha in the city.
Orphaned birdnapper-in-training Fernando lives in a favela slum (although a very tidy-looking one).
The original songs from John Powell (Shrek, Happy Feet) are forgettable, even with will.i.am and Jamie Foxx rapping, and they’re not especially inspiring, except for that hip-shaking opening production number. The best tune is performed by the original Swinger from Rio, Sergio Mendes, who contributes a new version of his classic Mas Que Nada for an airborne tour.
The best elements of Rio involve chase scenes in the air and on the ground — a motorcycle racing through narrow streets is especially well done and a rare example where the 3-D is used to good effect in Rio. (Fact is, the brilliant colours would play just as well in 2-D.)
Digital may make every feather stand out in cerulean glory in Rio, but it also can create perfection overload: a massive parade of dressed-up G-rated samba schools looks entirely too computer manufactured.
Although we know exactly which way Rio is going from liftoff, kids will get the message that rainforest birds belong in the trees, not in cages, and parents won’t mind them getting in a flap about animal welfare.
We can also be grateful that, while a bad dude does indeed get kicked in the pants — as happens in every kids’ film today — at least he didn’t have a Brazilian.
Linda Barnard is a syndicated movie critic for The Toronto Star.