Despite its exotic setting, the personal connection of Rio-bred director Carlos Saldanha, the odd eye-popping sequence, and a lot of literal color, the new CGI-animated Rio turns out to be figuratively colorless. Certainly, there are worse ways to entertain a kid for ninety-six minutes. Rio is genial enough, with jokes and action sequences positioned in all the right places. But the flick is so doggedly programmatic that even seen-it-little kids may find it ho-hum. It all starts in the Brazilian rainforest, where baby Blu gets shanghaied by pet-trading smugglers. In short order, the blue macaw grows up as the pet of Minnesotan bookstore owner Linda (Leslie Mann), who—like Blu (Jesse Eisenberg)—lives comfortably off the social radar.
That all changes with the arrival of Túlio (Rodrigo Santoro), a Rio-based bird scientist who has traveled across the globe to ask Linda to bring Blu home to mate with the last female of their kind: if Linda doesn’t agree, Blu’s particular species will go extinct. Before you can say “flying down to Rio,” a nervous Blu must shake a tailfeather on a high-stakes blind date with restless parrot Jewel (Anne Hathaway). To initiate the requisite “lost in the big city” chase plot, human smugglers again intervene, with white cockatoo Nigel (Jemaine Clement) doing their dirty work as the heroes go on the run.
Jewel would rather “go on the fly,” but the sheltered house pet Blu never found his wings (perhaps his learning curve will coincide with the duo’s love connection? Awww…). Chained to each other like “The Defiant Ones,” attracted opposites Blu and Jewel gradually learn to see eye to eye over the course of their vertiginous adventures, defined more by falling than flying. Along the way, they find help from toucan Rafael (George Lopez), yellow canary Nico (Jamie Foxx), and drooling bulldog Luis (Tracy Morgan) as they dodge Nigel and a pack of thieving monkeys.
The presence of Foxx and Clement (late of Flight of the Conchords) supports Saldanha’s unconvincing attempt to make Rio a full-fledged musical. Sadly autotuned, Foxx doesn’t make much of an impression, but Clement owns the film’s best scene by delivering a classic self-defining villain number. What Rio most conspicuously lacks is distinctiveness of character (or chemistry), situation, and even place. Aerial views of the city are the film’s most impressive feature, but the buffed edges of the 3D CGI take the edge off even the black-market-entwined orphan boy who lives in a rooftop shanty.
A disco ball and some Lionel Ritchie may be enough to make two macaws mate, but animation-exhausted family audiences no doubt expect a bit more of a show. A little samba here, a Carnival climax there, and Rio comes in for its landing predictably on schedule.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]