Get the Flock Out of Here
Rio opens with a gorgeous animated panorama of, you know, Rio, the city: the white beaches, the beautiful bay, the sparkling skyscrapers. And I thought: “Ha! Will we see cartoon favelas? Doubt it!” The horrifically poor shantytown slums are at least as emblematic of Rio de Janeiro as is that big statue of Jesus looking down on the city. City of God in a kids’ movie? Not likely.
Imagine my surprise, then, when we do indeed get a look — two quick looks, in fact — at the favelas of Rio. In a kiddie flick. One is — *sigh* — merely as a backdrop for a kooky chase sequence on motorbikes with talking animals and stuff, but one is indeed a glimpse, however brief, at the life of a young boy driven to do something that, to the eyes of our comparatively privileged children, looks like a Bad Thing because he needs the money the job provides.
It’s a welcome bit of nuance, and alas just about the only one here. I was so surprised to see the cartoon favelas show up, eventually, about halfway through the movie, because up till that point — and after that point, too — Rio is so tediously familiar that I could barely remember most of it after I left the cinema. I’m exaggerating just a tad, but even if I didn’t remember it, I could have told you what it was about anyway, because it deviates not one whit from the formula that we’ve come to understand is somehow “essential” for “family” movies (and for too many other movies, too). Cerulean parrot Blu (the voice of Jesse Eisenberg: The Social Network, Holy Rollers) lives happily in snowy Minnesota with his person, Linda (the voice of Leslie Mann: Shorts, Funny People). He’s “hilarious,” allegedly, because he’s more like a person than a bird: he can’t even fly, but he can get Linda her morning breakfast cereal. He is — are you ready for this? — a “nerd bird.” Which you probably already guessed — see how this works? — because he’s voiced by Jesse Eisenberg. I mean no disrespect to Eisenberg, whom I’m actually a big fan of: but this isn’t the kind of flick that ever intended to have anything new to say about nerdiness. Nerdiness is, as with everything else here, simplistic shorthand that stands in for anything authentic.
Nerdiness is the “handicap” that Blu needs to get over, although not too much, for his nerdiness makes him charming. He just has to get past his social awkwardness to make his fellow blu macaw Jewel (the voice of Anne Hathaway: Love and Other Drugs, Alice in Wonderland) like him. See, scientist Tulio (the voice of Rodrigo Santoro: I Love You Phillip Morris, Post Grad) convinces Linda to bring Blu home to Rio (he’d been snatched as a baby by sellers of exotic animals, and ended up in the U.S.), because he’s the last male of his kind, and it would be really nice if he and Jewel could, er, perpetuate the species, know what I mean say no more nudge nudge.
Wil Blu and Jewel hit it off? Will Blu, in fact, overcome his ruinous domestication and learn how to fly? If you need to ask, I can only assume that you’ve missed the 943,034 other iterations of this story (most of them just this spring alone, it seems, with the animation overload we’ve been subjected to in the past few months). You will also be unsurprised to learn that Rio offers “wacky” “ethnic” characters, breakdancing monkeys, a bird-versus-monkey rumble, and stolid reinforcement of such notions as “men (or male creatures of any species) are full of personality, while women (or female creatures of any species) are merely beautiful.” (I suspect that Linda’s personality is meant to be inherent in the fact that she wears eyeglasses, because, you know, character is intrinsic in weak eyesight. But her big moment, too, is when Tulio finally sees how physically attractive she is).
Director Carlos Saldanha may be a veteran of those terrible Ice Age cartoons, but he and screenwriter Don Rhymer seem more intent on aping the wonderful — and truly original — Madagascar, with their wild-animal hero who’s afraid of nature and the particularly Madagascar-lemur-ish monkeys here. (Rhymer? He should have never been allowed near a movie again after his Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son, although his Surf’s Up isn’t awful.) Why they didn’t choose to tell an all-new story is a mystery… except that Hollywood — and Hollywood’s audiences — don’t often reward originality. If they’re after more of the same-old same-old, they won’t be disappointed in Rio.