Director Carlos Saldanha, a native of Rio de Janeiro, does an impressive job of capturing a postcard landscape for his film, but Rio ultimately buckles under the weight of its lightness. Despite the film’s setting and issues of smuggling, poverty, and slavery, Rio is disappointingly light-hearted in execution. This wouldn’t be such a problem had the film not suggested moments of darkness – particularly from a fiendishly hilarious Jemaine Clement voicing Nigel, the cannibalistic cockatoo.
Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) is a domesticated and flightless macaw taken in by Linda (Leslie Mann). A montage shows the uncomfortably close relationship between the two, with Linda substituting Blu for human companionship. Growing from child to adult, she sticks by Blu, owning a bookstore where the two live a comfortable if unremarkable life. Blu is perfectly content with this arrangement, pleased with never having to leave his comfort zone. A young ornithologist named Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) stumbles into Linda’s bookstore to find Blu – his exuberance rubs both Linda and Blu the wrong way. Thought to be the last male of his species, Tulio proposes to have Blu come to Rio de Janeiro to mate with a female macaw. Despite her reservations, Linda agrees. This establishes Rio’s primary conflict, as Blu and his mate, Jewel (Anne Hathaway), are stolen by smugglers, with Linda and Tulio working together to find the two.
Rio’s high energy earnestness makes the film pleasurable, in that despite its hollowness, one is able to enjoy themselves for its rich visual palette and interesting characters. This is in part due to the Carnival celebration that happens as the film builds to its climax – the constant thumping of Sergio Mendes approved tunes keeps the film’s spirit alive. And given the addition of a fantastic musical number by Jemaine Clement, the film is a delight to the ears. Unlike the recent Gnomeo and Juliet, Rio has a far greater sense of how to progress a narrative – it’s rarely bores. Given the absolute frantic pacing of the film, Rio never grows tedious. It’s almost as if the film is aware of how thin its subject matter is being stretched, and therein wants to keep moving forward toward scenes that impress the eye or ear. For that, Rio functions as an inoffensive diversion, which given the current film climate, will have to do. But Rio is still a far-cry from the richness and sheer imagination of 2011’s other animated film, Rango.