“Who cares about a bunch of birds?”
Well, judging by the fact that the original Rio grossed $484 million worldwide, it seems more than a few people are invested. The avian adventure from Blue Sky Studios may not have soared as high as Disney/Pixar or DreamWorks Animation’s best efforts — or even Blue Sky’s own Ice Age juggernaut — but it proved to be a dazzling, lucrative diversion in the spring of 2011. This charming sequel, which arrives almost three years to the day later, retains the disposable, toe-tapping charm of its predecessor.
Having watched Rio recently, I actually felt like the film lent itself pretty naturally to a follow-up, which prevents this sequel from feeling like a total cash-grab. (Don’t get me wrong: Rio 2 will still happily grab your cash.) The original ended with the happy pairing of Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway), who were thought to be the last two macaws of their species.
Rio 2 quickly introduces us to Blu and Jewel’s three kids: Carla (Rachel Crow), Bia (Amandla Stenberg), and Tiago (Pierce Gagnon). The family is living a happy, domesticated life in Rio alongside Blu’s human owner Linda (Leslie Mann) and her bird-loving scientist/husband Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro). During an expedition to the Amazon — which the original movie somehow managed to avoid — Linda and Tulio discover that Blu and his brood may not be the last of their kind after all. Feeling cooped up at home and craving a return to her wild roots, Jewel convinces the skittish Blu to fly to the Amazon for a family vacation. (Plenty of jokes are made at the expense of Blu’s fanny pack because fanny packs will never not be funny.) Meanwhile, Blu’s flock of friends — Rafael (George Lopez), Pedro (will.i.am) and Nico (Jamie Foxx) — are scouting talent for the upcoming Carnival celebration, which they use as their flimsy excuse to tag along.
On the way there, the group is spotted by Nigel (Jemaine Clement), the evil, preening cockatoo antagonist from the first film who has revenge on his mind. When the family arrives in the Amazon, they learn the remaining macaws have been pushed deeper into the rainforest by humans. The macaws are led by Eduardo (Andy Garcia), who is also Jewel’s father. Eduardo deeply distrusts humans, and his fears aren’t exactly unfounded. A group of loggers kidnap Linda and Tulio, and threaten the macaws’ jungle home.
Despite venturing into the wild Amazon, Rio 2 covers a lot of familiar territory, especially when it comes to the relationship between Blu and his disapproving father-in-law. The sequel also has a more overt environmental message than its predecessor, but at least it doesn’t come off as a Happy Feet-style ambush. The climactic battle between our blue heroes and the big, bad deforesting humans was basically a kid-friendly remake of Avatar. (Which, everyone knows, was itself an unofficial remake of FernGully and Pocahontas.)
Eisenberg continues to be the perfect choice to play the neurotic Blu, while Hathaway is sort of wasted on a bland character whose prickly edges have been sanded down for the sequel. (Even Blu and Jewel’s eventual conflict over where their family should live feels lukewarm.) Clement (Men in Black III) continues his successful run of playing comically menacing villains. Simply put, Nigel was too good to kill off in the original (The villain is less scary and more outright buffoonish in the sequel.) His standout scene is a remix of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” (On top of that, the 20th Century Fox logo at the beginning gets a samba makeover, while the Carnival auditions allow for a slew of amusing musical moments.) With this more crowded sequel, some of the first film’s supporting players — namely the ones voiced by Lopez, will.i.am, Foxx, and Tracy Morgan — are pushed to the margins.
Besides Garcia, the most notable additions include Kristin Chenoweth (stealing all of her scenes) as a poison dart frog who is hopelessly in love with Nigel. (She serenades him with a tune called “Poisonous Love.”) There’s also singer Bruno Mars as a smoother, studlier macaw who re-enters Jewel’s life. I thought the film missed a chance to explore whether Blu and Jewel were actually meant for each other, or if they only got together out of necessity. Then I remembered this movie is for kids who probably don’t want to deal with any complex relationship drama and just came to see some pretty birds.
Fortunately, giving the audience pretty things to look at is where both Rio films excel. Although the 3D is far from essential — since Rio 2 probably looks stunning in 2D as well — it does give some depth to the colorful, Busby Berkeley-style musical sequences.
Director/co-writer Carlos Saldanha — a native of Rio de Janeiro — has obviously put a lot of energy into lovingly recreating his homeland for both of these films. That sort of personal touch is unusual among animated offerings, even within some of the most successful and acclaimed films of all time. (If your life depended on it, could you name either of the two people who directed Frozen…without checking IMDb? Me neither.) Still, some of the story beats curiously feel like an outsider’s perception of Brazil. For example, the birds in the Amazon settle a beef with (wait for it) a soccer match! (I mean all they do in Brazil is play soccer and dance samba, right?)
Then again, stereotypes tend to be grounded in truth. More importantly, this is also the sort of quibble that will fly over the head of Rio 2’s intended audience. Instead, it’s better to think of these films as a celebration of Brazil rather than some sort of accurate depiction. (I don’t feel like City of God: The Animated Movie would be very popular among parents with young kids.) The film is preceded by “Almost Home” a zippy, four-minute short featuring the voice of Steve Martin that serves as a preview for Home, an upcoming film from DreamWorks Animation.
Rio 2 doesn’t achieve greatness, but I don’t get the sense greatness was anybody’s goal. The voice cast is solid, the visuals are suitably lush, and that seems to be good enough for everyone involved. In the end, this film is a lot like the infectiously joyous music on the soundtrack: you’ll remember tapping your feet and having a fun time. But you probably won’t be compelled to remember too many specifics from your trip to Rio.