April 15, 2011

RIO: Cartoon Carnival

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Worth A Ticket; Birds Fly High Enough for Kids, and Adults Too.

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Animation has, over the past decade, passed beyond being merely a movie genre to a veritable industry within the industry.  Every studio is in the business now, making films year-round that routinely cost $125-200M to produce, with another $100-150M for worldwide marketing.  It’s worth the risk, because nothing is as profitable for a studio as an animated franchise that works, with its gigantic opportunities not just for sequels and spin-offs, but ancillaries like TV series and merchandising.  Plus, unlike superhero movies, most cartoons are original properties that the studios can own from the ground up, and even the superstar actors who provide voiceovers get just a fraction of the deals they command when they have to spend months in front of a camera.  That’s a lot of pressure on what are mostly insubstantial comedies, but as the segment has matured, quality has become more widespread too–although Pixar/Disney still, of course, towers over everyone else, we’ve recently had excellent pictures from DreamWorks (How To Train Your Dragon) and Paramount (Rango).  The new RIO from 20th/Blue Sky (makers of the Ice Age series) isn’t quite at that level, but it’s a very creditable entertainment that should delight a lot of children without making their adult companions suffer.

The setting is, well–guess.  Actually, the story starts in Minnesota, where the only male blue macaw left in the world (named, with a certain lack of originality, Blu) lives in glorious mutual nerdiness with his owner Linda, in the bookstore she runs.  He’s voiced by Jesse Eisenberg, and truly it’s rare that an actor was so born to voice a part (Linda is Leslie Mann).  Blu’s only shortcoming is an inability to fly, but in the limited life he and Linda have, he’s adapted to it with ease.  One day, a Brazilian ornithologist named Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) shows up to tell Linda that he has the only female blue macaw, and that she must let the two birds get together in order to save the species.  Reluctantly, she agrees, and when bird and girl arrive in Rio, nothing goes as planned:  the female, named Jewel (Anne Hathaway) is uninterested in the extreme in mating with Blu, and disdainful of his flightlessness.  Worse, a group of smugglers, aided by the villainous cockatoo Nigel (Jemaine Clement), capture the two macaws and shackle them together.  The rest of the tale is about the escape and romance of the heroes, aided by various wildlife voiced by, among others, Jamie Foxx, Will i Am, George Lopez and Tracy Morgan.


The storyline of Rio is rarely unpredictable–do you really wonder if Blu will take flight before the movie is over?–and one wishes the script had a little more cleverness and character (Pixar has spoiled us forever).  It’s one of those committee jobs, with 4 screenwriters credited (Don Rhymer, Joshua Sternin, Jeffrey Ventimilia, Sam Harper) and 3 more for the story (Saldanha, Earl Richey Jones, Todd R. Jones), and as you’d expect, it doesn’t quite achieve cohesion.  But it bounces along nicely, and sometimes it’s downright funny.  Along with Eisenberg’s perfect neurotic vocal, Hathaway is a most spirited romantic adversary, and she even gets to sing a little (listening to the two of them, you wish they’d do something live action together, like an updated spin on Midnight Run).  Clement is a terrifically vicious villain, and he has the best song, a paean to meanness called “Nasty Bird.” Even the guest stars along for the ride, like Morgan and Lopez, are pleasant company.
One of the main complaints about 3D–that the lenses dull the colors so much, the visual experience is often less pleasing than 2D–definitely doesn’t apply to Rio.  The picture takes full advantage of its setting and Carnival atmosphere, consistently vibrant with sharp, bright colors that are a joy to watch,  The director Carlos Saldanha, a veteran of the Ice Age series, also makes strong use of the 3D itself, with lots of vertiginous flight and chase sequences, not to mention the Carnival setpieces at the climax; people, animals, birds and objects are constantly popping unexpectedly into frame. So this is one time that paying the 3D premium doesn’t feel like a tax on moviegoing. 
Rio is content to be nothing more than a lightweight 90 minutes of floating entertainment, but that’s harder to pull off than it looks; you can’t begrudge Fox its revenues from the new franchise it’s probably created  Based on the trailers for the summer’s 3D blockbusters to come, we should enjoy it while it lasts.  
(RIO – 20th Century Fox/Blue Sky – 93 min. – G – Director:  Carlos Saldanha – Script:  Don Rhymer, Joshua Sternin, Jeffrey Ventimilia, Sam Harper, story by Carlos Saldanha, Earl Richey Jones, Todd R. Jones – Cast:  Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro, Jemaine Clement, George Lopez, Tracy Morgan – Wide Release)

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."