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Rio is a mess, a pretty, occasionally entertaining mess that will only get worse with repeated viewings. Like the famed Carnival it portrays, it seeks only to be a spectacle, and like most spectacles, it ultimately proves shallow, frivolous and wasteful. Time after time, Rio chooses momentary laughs and showy animation sequences over the integrity of its characters and the momentum of its narrative. If there’s a cheap giggle to be had, it will make one of its characters look foolish to get it. If there’s a bad original song that can be shoehorned in, it will slow its pacing down to accommodate. Its pictures may be stunning paintball blasts of three dimensional rainbow beauty, but beneath those crisscrossing color palettes lie a chorus of exploited characters betrayed by their own creators.
At one point, the principal male love interest actually fantasizes about being a bird. He looks in the mirror, tucks in his arms, arches out his neck and lets out bird calls, not to entertain the lady he’d like to end up with but because he’s creepily obsessed with birds. Worse, after he’s invariably caught by said female, Rio thinks it’s still okay to make him a sexual option, as if a strong female could willingly choose to be with an awkward idiot who’d like to be a parrot, without completely undermining any shred of likability she might have left. You know movies about slovenly, overweight dudes who fall for their best friends? Those dudes always have to get their lives together and become grown-ups before the ladies give it a go. They don’t just keep on as incompetent ostrich impersonators and suddenly get their happy endings. Or maybe they do in Brazil.
Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) is the last male blue macaw on Earth. Stolen, domesticated and living in Minnesota, he’s perfectly content running a bookstore with his owner Linda (Leslie Mann), but life gets a little more complicated after a scientist named Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) somehow gets wind of his existence and shows up with a plan to mate him. He’d rather stay in his cage and be teased by the other avians who’ve learned how to fly, but Linda’s his owner and she thinks a trip to Rio to rendezvous with the female would do him some good.
At first it does. The open air and festive scenery open Blu’s shuttered eyes a bit, teaching him how to positively interact with other birds and feel more comfortable in the wild, but that new found freedom is short-lived after he’s thrown into a cage with Jewel (Anne Hathaway) and put into hiding to be sold to the highest bidder. As the final two blue macaws, they’ll fetch a hefty price on the open market, but Jewel, unaccustomed to incarceration is already planning her escape. The flee is daring, quick and successful. Perhaps more importantly, it does nothing to break the mechanism binding the two birds’ feet together. Unable to fly and out of options, they wander the outskirts of Rio looking for anyone who might offer assistance.
Ultimately, that help comes from Rafael (George Lopez), a toucan with too many kids and a wife he’s eager to get a brief respite from. He’s got a crazy plan to break the chains, but it’ll need to involve a bulldog voiced by Tracy Morgan, a circular saw and a trip to Carnival. Luckily, Brazil is the perfect place to find all three.
Rio’s last act is a frenzied runaround of motorcycle races, skimpy outfits and propeller deaths. On the surface, it’s truly a wonder of animation and a testament to just how far the genre has come. The men and women who worked so hard almost seventy-five years ago on Snow White would be in awe, but they too would ultimately realize it’s all for naught without a story and characters worth coming back to. It’s not about believability. Anyone seeing Rio knows they’re in for a film about talking birds. That’s okay. Not every story told needs to be practical, but the effective ones need to play by a logical set of rules at home within the chosen environment. Rio does not. For example: its principal villain, an over-the-top cockatoo is backed by a gang of thieving monkeys who speak to each other in English but text in phonetically spelled animal noises. I don’t care that they use cell phones, I only care that they do so illogically. That’s just bad storytelling.