Review: ‘Rio 2’ is fine for kids, but seems too familiar to really fly

“Rio 2” is a perfect example of franchise maintenance in place of storytelling, and the nicest thing I can say about it is that my kids found it to be an agreeable way to spend part of an afternoon.

I know I saw the first “Rio.” My review of it was published in the days before we started putting letter grades on films in our reviews, but I would have given it a B or a B-. I liked the way they used Rio as a setting, I thought the performances were spirited and fun, and I really liked the soundtrack that was put together by Sergio Mendes. The sequel, which is practically the definition of “more of the same,” is less successful in the way it uses the rain forest as a setting, and it features performances that feel far more phoned in while still featuring a non-stop dynamic soundtrack put together by Sergio Mendes. There is nothing about the film that feels particularly compelling, and the story is really just an excuse to put a new obstacle between Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway) while bad guy Nigel (Jemaine Clement) once again skulks about, all on the way to a happy ending you'll see coming a mile away.

A movie like this is made and scheduled because it is a property that Fox wants to keep active, not out of any particular need in storytelling. Carlos Saldanha is a reliable co-ordinator for this kind of bright, colorful, kid-friendly property. The palette of the movie is once again eye-popping and vivid, and it's apparent that the Blue Sky team has gotten to a place where they are capable of enormous technical sophistication. Looking at the actual craft of the animation, they're very impressive. There's some very strong character performance work that is made more memorable because of the mannerisms of real birds that they use. But all of it is in service to a disappointingly familiar overall piece of work.

The most depressing thing about movies made for kids is how the moment kids indicate that they enjoy something the first time, studios begin to mercilessly milk that thing. It's like they're terrified to just tell a story that takes place in one film and then move on to another story. The films get worse and worse in most cases, and being able to point at the “Toy Story” franchise isn't an excuse for everyone else to do it. Instead, it should be proof of just how difficult it is to do it right. So many of these films are already similar, so everything starts to blend together after a certain point. Most tellingly, because my kids know there will be more chapters of pretty much everything, they are very selective with what they'll watch a second or third or fifteenth time. They may like “Rio” in the theater, but they're not driven to see it over and over because they know they'll get a sequel that will be pretty much the same exact film. Watching how hard it was for the filmmakers to work all the characters from the first film into this one and how shabby the actual story structure is, it feels like this was an obligation, and that's never the best way to tell a story.

Blu and Jewel have adapted nicely to their lives as parents of three young birds, while their owners Linda (Leslie Mann) and Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro, who would make this franchise infinitely better if he would play his role as Xerxes from “300” instead) are deep in the jungle, looking for more wild macaws. They end up encountering evil loggers in the exact same spot where they find a huge colony of these thought-to-be-extinct birds. Blu and Jewel decide to fly their family into the Amazon to help out, and when they find the rest of the flock, Jewel realizes this is her family who she thought were dead. Blu struggles to fit in while trying to win over Eduardo (Andy Garcia), Jewel's father. It sounds like it's a busy movie, but it's really not. There's no real urgency at any point, even when you've got a ridiculous bad guy voiced by Miguel Ferrer trying to kill Linda and Trulio, and every potential conflict they introduce seems like you've seen it a hundred times before. Gee, I wonder if Jewel's father will ever warm up to Blu. I wonder if her childhood sweetheart Roberto (Bruno Mars) will turn out to be less perfect than he seems. I wonder if Linda and Trulio will reunite with their birds and stop the evil loggers, thereby guaranteeing the flock will live in safety forever.

The supporting characters like Rafael (George Lopez), Nico (Jamie Foxx), and Luiz (Tracy Morgan) are just shoved into the margins of the film just so they have an excuse to put their names in the trailers. The one new cast member who makes any impression is Kristen Chenoweth, but it's not for the right reasons. She plays a poisonous tree frog who is in love with Nigel, the evil bird played once again with his characteristic Mick-Jagger-On-Ludes charm by Jemaine Clement, and her entire character arc is about how she wishes she could have sex with Nigel but can't because she'd kill him. It is a truly bizarre character choice, and her big musical number is like the Evil Alternate Universe version of Josh Gad's “In Summer” number from “Frozen.”

“Rio 2” is fine, which is not the same as saying it's good. With Fox now releasing movies from both DreamWorks Animation and  Blue Sky Studios, it would be great if they actually pushed the filmmakers to experiment and try new things and build off of their successes in interesting ways. Instead, I worry that everything's just going to be “Croods” and “Rio” and “Ice Age” and “Shrek” sequels for as long as they can grind them out.

“Rio 2” opens everywhere on Friday.