When Pixar set out to make Ratatouille, Brad Bird went to Paris, dined at top restaurants and interviewed chefs. Some of the animators actually studied Parisian sewers, which seems to me to be taking authenticity a little too far. Still, for all that, we don’t see much of the City of Light but the skyline, some nice views of the Seine and one gourmet restaurant (and, of course, the sewers).
Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, set in New Orleans, did better by the Crescent City, from St. Louis Cathedral (where the climactic wedding was celebrated) and the architecture of the French Quarter to the Mardi Gras parade. Here, too, the filmmakers visited New Orleans repeatedly, rode the riverboats and streetcars, consulted with local culture experts and studied historical photos and videos.
As American animated films go, these are unusual cases. From the generic suburbs of Toy Story movies or Despicable Me to the storybook worlds of Kung Fu Panda or Tangled, a strong sense of another place and culture is not a notable feature in Hollywood animation.
But Carlos Saldanha, who has directed or co-directed most of Blue Sky’s productions (including the Ice Age films and Robots), is a native Brazilian, born and raised in Rio de Janeiro — and that’s why Rio is something special. It doesn’t just feel well-researched; it feels like being shown around town by a local.
Saldanha has whipped up a veritable animated celebration of his city and its culture, from the flamboyance of the annual Carnival to the city’s famous landmarks — above all the omnipresent Christ the Redeemer statue looking down on the city from the granite dome of Corcovado in countless shots. From the arches of the Carioca Aqueduct to Sugarloaf Mountain, from the flamboyant costumes of the samba schools to the sundrenched beaches of Guanabara Bay, Rio is as colorful a look at a faraway world as kids are likely to get at the movies without reading subtitles.
Parents take note: This includes the sensual, risqué spirit associated with the city, from the skimpy, gaudy Carnival costumes and beachwear to some mildly suggestive dialogue. Rio is also frank about the city’s less tourist-friendly side. We see the favelas or shantytowns, with their narrow streets and tiers of shacks built like card houses with corrugated sheet-iron roofs. There is poverty and crime, from petty gangsters who employ needy children to do their dirty work to street hustlers who distract tourists with performance art while confederates pick their pockets — a trick employed here by a troop of mischievous marmoset monkeys.
Yes, monkeys. This is a lightweight family cartoon, not City of God or something. My Brazilian colleague Pablo Villaça, a fellow Online Film Critics Society member, wasn’t thrilled with the film, calling out its stereotypes, well-worn story elements and so forth. “Had it been designed with the care of Pixar’s productions, Rio could have been Carlos Saldanha’s Manhattan,” Villaça laments. “Instead, he became a tour guide for those who dream of visiting the state capital.” Perhaps Manhattan is too ambitious a touchstone (not that there’s anything wrong with setting one’s sights high). In any case, a good tour guide is nothing to sneeze at.
Yes, there is a story. Blu (Jesse Eisenberg), a rare macaw, is from the Brazilian rainforest, but he is captured as a chick by poachers and brought to snowy Minnesota (“Not Rio,” a humorous subtitle notes), where he comes into the care of a bookish young lady named Linda (Leslie Mann). Linda and Blu are comfortable with their sheltered existence, and not at all prepared for the sudden intrusion of Túlio (Rodrigo Santoro), a Brazilian orthinologist who explains that Blu is the last male of his kind, and that to save the species he must be brought to Brazil, where the last female is in captivity.
At this point, you might be having flashbacks to Saldanha’s solo directorial debut, Ice Age 2, with its awkward, unfunny subplot turning on the notion that the last mammoths in existence are Manny and a female who for no good reason thinks she’s a possum. Really, though, Rio’s odd-couple pairing of Blu and Jewel (Anne Hathaway) is much more serviceable than that.
In a way, it reminds me of Disney’s underappreciated Bolt: male animal hero, devoted to adoring human female, but so domesticated that he doesn’t know how to be an animal, becomes separated from his female owner, reluctantly joining forces with an unwilling but worldly-wise female animal (in Bolt’s case it’s a female of another species, a cat) who helps him rediscover his forgotten heritage. Both Rio and Bolt even borrow an old screwball-comedy gag of literally handcuffing (or chaining or leashing) the boy and the girl to one another.
Naturally, the romantic element in Rio is absent in Bolt. Complicating matters, unlike the dominant, take-charge Bolt, Blu is unsure, diffident and petulant — not an asset for a romantic lead under any circumstances, but perhaps especially in Rio. “Brazilian ladies respond to confidence,” a pair of local male birds (Jamie Foxx and will.i.am) tell Blu confidentially upon his arrival, advising him to act like a “crazy love hawk.” Blu, of course, doesn’t even know how to act like a love sparrow. He’s voiced by Jesse Eisenberg, after all.
While Jewel is clearly the most assertive of the couple, their relationship isn’t entirely one-sided, and Blu has a few handy skills that Jewel lacks, from opening cage doors to climbing and skateboarding. His defining handicap is that he can’t fly. All of this drags out a bit too long, though the resolution is satisfying.
Linda and Túlio’s relationship also has some give and take: Linda’s small-town Midwestern upbringing hasn’t prepared her for Brazilian big-city life (“We don’t shake our tushies in Minnesota!”), but she catches on fast. (Turns out riding a motorcycle is just like riding a snowmobile!) In the end, I wish Túlio had been given a little more to do. Then there’s Fernando (Jake T. Austin), a street orphan who becomes a more important and more soulful character than you might think at first.
Jemaine Clement all but steals the show as a villainous cockatoo named Nigel whose big musical number, “Pretty Bird,” is a high point. Like Captain Hook’s preening “Waltz,” Nigel strings together polysyllabic rhyming adjectives in celebration of his own bad self: “I’m invincible; I’m unmincible / I’m unwashable, unrinsable / Like an abandoned school I have no principle!”
Tracy Morgan is hilarious as a semitragic, drooly bulldog whose chipper demeanor doesn’t quite mask suppressed predatory instincts. George Lopez plays a henpecked but devoted family bird named Rafael who helps Blu and Jewel. Though Rafael wants to go to Carnival, he surprises Blu and Jewel by heading home instead. “I love Carnival,” he says, “but I love my family more.”
Music and dance play a huge role. Here at last you can see what Saldanha was trying to do, not quite successfully, in Ice Age 2, with choreography set pieces that were striking in themselves but didn’t really connect to anything else in that film. In Rio, it works. A breakneck chase sequence with characters riding a sheet of corrugated metal across the rooftops of a favela continues a kind of Blue Sky tradition of slalom-style sled chases.
One of the best sequences is a soaring hang-glider ride over the city that includes a spectacular 360-degree pan around Christ the Redeemer. In 3-D, Christ’s outstretched arms swing right out into the theater, as if to embrace the world.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic. He blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content advisory: Some scary and menacing scenes; skimpy outfits and recurring mildly rude or suggestive humor. Might be too much for younger kids.