Remember Disney? That’s not merely a rhetorical question, nor is it intended as sarcastic. I only wonder because over the last decade of animated filmmaking, you might ask if anyone still does remember Disney.
Rio arrives at an interesting moment, when it often seems that mainstream computer-animated features have become a license to print money. Yet even as a broad spectrum of films have proven popular with audiences, there has been a battle between two schools of thought: Pixar’s rich, emotionally complex storytelling, and the DreamWorks philosophy of faster, hipper and quippier. Most of the subsequent newcomers in the field have leaned towards the DreamWorks way, but Rio actually looks a little farther back — to the Wolfgang Reitherman era of old-school Disney filmmaking. And if you’re familiar with that era, you know that approach has its pluses and minuses.
The tale opens with a rare South American bird named Blu (voice of Jesse Eisenberg) snatched from the wild by rare-bird exporters before he even knows how to fly. After falling off the back of a truck in Minnesota, Blu becomes the domesticated animal companion of a girl named Linda (Leslie Mann), who grows up to be a solitary bookstore owner. But when a Brazilian ornithologist named Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) shows up to announce that Blu’s species is on the verge of extinction, they’re off to Rio so he can meet the last remaining female, Jewel (Anne Hathaway) — assuming a trio of smugglers and their nasty cockatoo Nigel (Jemaine Clement) don’t get to the birds first.
Director Carlos Saldanha — a veteran of the Ice Age sequels and Scrat shorts — is no stranger to making movies chock full of rocket-paced action, and there’s tremendous color and energy to the look of Rio.
There’s also an amazingly vivid sense of place, from the ramshackle favelas to the packed Carnaval streets — which probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, since Saldanha is a native of Rio de Janeiro. Perhaps more than any recent animated feature, Rio feels like it actually takes place in this world.
It also feels like it takes place in a world of 40 years ago, when Disney had shifted from dark-tinged fairy tales to frivolous adventures. The Reitherman period in Disney animation isn’t exactly prized among aficionados — he directed features like 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book and The Aristocats — but his films were colorful larks that knew how to use elements like the comic-relief animal sidekick and a good villain song. Sure enough, Rio and Jewel find themselves assisted by a pair of wise-cracking birds (voiced by Jamie Foxx and will.i.am), and Nigel’s story of why he’s a bad bird gets its own musical production number. The smuggler’s bumbling henchmen even feel like they might have been a nod to Dalmatians’ Horace and Jasper. From the standpoint of basic storytelling structure, Rio feels like it could have been made in 1971 just as easily as in 2011.
Unfortunately, that also means not much real character connection. Enjoyably performed as the main characters might be, the avian romance between Blu and Jewel never really develops organically; the relationship between the socially awkward humans is much more endearing and gets far less screen time. Some of the supporting characters — including a slobbering bulldog (Tracy Morgan) and a kindly toucan (George Lopez) — feel perfunctory, and the verbal gags are almost never as memorable as the visual ones. It’s fun, but it ain’t deep.
Call this a decidedly retro reaction, but … that’s OK. Plenty of contemporary animated features are trying so hard to be clever that they forget to be fundamentally enjoyable — and as for the emotional depth, we can appreciate Pixar’s impressive track record without dismissing everything that doesn’t live up to that standard. Rio manages to be entertaining by working within an unlikely formula: making something that’s fun for kids, in the style of movies that their parents would have watched when they were kids. Grade: B
Opens April 15. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.