Review: ‘Rio’ offers colorful international fun with Eisenberg, Hathaway, and Lopez

Blue Sky Studios has been a reliable producer of family content for 20th Century Fox, but I can’t say I love their movies the way I love, yes, Pixar.  And while that may seem an unfair comparison to make, they’re certainly all playing in the same sandbox, and they’re competing for the same family dollars.

Every studio wants to have a company they can turn to for this story of movie, and it’s an important part of the business model for a modern movie studio.  With Blue Sky, they’ve built their brand on the back of their very successful “Ice Age” series, and having one go-to franchise that does almost unbelievable business each time out allows them to try different things.  I think “Robots” has some major story problems, but I like the way they designed that world.  In adapting “Horton Hears A Who,” they did a nice job of creating a Dr. Seuss world on film.  They work within the general “family film” genre, but they’ve tried several different visual styles and they don’t seem to just tell the same story every time out.

With “Rio,” their latest movie, they’ve told a very simple story against a backdrop that allowed them to make some big exciting choices with the soundtrack, and they’ve included just enough sophistication about the setting of their story that I feel like it nudges a simple film into the “better than expected” category.  Rio is a thrilling place to set a story because it is a world of haves and have nots, and it is a dangerous and beautiful city.  For a film aimed at a family audience to even acknowledge the existence of the favelas seems sort of brave, but to actually set much of the movie there and to try to capture some of the diversity of the city in a movie like this… that’s surprising.  And admirable.

Even the film’s opening scene tackles the notion of the export of exotic animals for pets, something that is a real-world problem, and uses it as a way of bringing the Cerulean macaw Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) into the life of a little girl in Minnesota, who grows up to be Linda (voiced by Leslie Mann), a bookstore owner.  She and Blu are happy tucked away in their warm little bookstore, secure in their daily routine, until Tulio (voiced by Rodrigo Santoro) shows up one day.  He’s a bird expert from Brazil, working to preserve the species that Blu belongs to.  Seems Blu is the last living male that anyone knows about, and they’ve found a female named Jewel (voiced by Anne Hathaway) in Brazil who they want to mate Blu with.

Blu is over-pampered, stifled from having been raised by Linda, and he’s never flown in his life.  Jewel, on the other hand, is a wild animal, and from the moment she and Blu meet in a laboratory setting, she’s working to escape.  The way their relationship plays out probably won’t shock anyone who has ever seen a movie before, but both Eisenberg and Hathaway bring considerable energy and charm to their roles, and they are matched by the human story between Santoro and Mann.  When Blu and Jewel are stolen, it kicks off these parallel adventure stories, and along the way, there are characters voiced by Jamie Foxx, Will.i.Am, Tracy Morgan, George Lopez, and most notably, Jemaine Clement as a villainous cockatoo named Nigel.

The film’s soundtrack is exactly what you’d want from a film set in South America, very mainstream but with enough authentic local energy to make it feel genuine.  The movie opens and closes with the same basic musical number, and it’s incredibly infectious, immediately inviting.  The movie has a warmth to it that is very direct and that works for audiences of vastly different age and experience.  This was only my three-year-old’s second movie in a theater, and he enjoyed it all, sitting quietly and reacting well to the various thrills and laughs.  It helps that it’s such a bright and colorful film, because even with the 3D glasses on, it’s a very vivid visual experience.  The designs are very broad, very cartoony, and not remotely aiming for reality, which excuses the way they clean things up a bit.  Even sanitized for kids, the rougher parts of Rio definitely reflect the way things really are, and Fernando (Jake T. Austin) is a street kid who is the audience’s way of seeing just how hard it is for some people in that country to scratch out a living. 

Blue Sky’s Carlos Saldanha has been a major part of that company’s movies for a pretty much their entire existence.  He’s a co-director on the first “Ice Age,” a co-director on “Robots,” and he directed both the “Ice Age” sequels as well.  With “Rio,” it feels like this filmmaker (who was born in Rio himself) has made something with that extra added bit of personal passion, and maybe that’s why I found it to be one of the most enjoyable things the studio has made.  It feels effortless, like they just let it rip, and I can see why the film’s enjoyed such massive openings around the world.  I have a feeling it’s going to do fantastic business over spring break as families in the US get their chance to see it next weekend.

“Rio” opens in theaters nationwide this Friday.