Rio de Janeiro — it’s the only place in the world where a tranquil shot of birds chirping their way through the thick greenery can erupt into a grandiose tribal orchestra. Doing away with the mammoths and icecaps of his previous works, director Carlos Saldanha (the Ice Age series) places immense care in representing his home city in Rio; his latest in a long line of animated motion pictures. Through the story of Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg), a domesticated blue macaw, and his owner Linda (voiced by Leslie Mann), an eccentric ornithologist, having to fly to Brazil (which as luck would have it, is preparing for its annual Carnaval) to save the bird breed from extinction, Saldanha presents an exuberant rendition of the South American country — from the favela’s rife with tin shacks to the cerulean ocean and iconic Cristo Redentor — brought to life with an impressive visual palette.
Once there Blu meets Jewel (voiced by Anne Hathaway), an independent free-spirit who, despite her comfortable living conditions, dreams of more. Disinterested in both Blu and the prospect of repopulating their species, she formulates a plan of escape — a scheme that has trouble reaching fruition when the duo are captured and chained together by a group of animal smugglers, of which includes Nigel (voiced by Jemaine Clemet), a deranged cockatoo who has joined the criminals’ efforts. But with their net-worth fetching a fortune, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Consequently, the film’s predictability does come back to haunt it.
When Blue and Jewel finally do escape and search of a way to free themselves of the conjoining shackle, Rio begins to lose its place. Despite the colorful aesthetic and jubilant voice performances, Don Rhymer’s screenplay is inconsistent — constantly introducing superfluous side-characters, gimmicky musical numbers, and uninteresting side-plots, all which detract from the charm of the film’s leads. The most frustrating of these additions being Pedro (voiced by will.i.am) and Nico (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a pair of oblivious Brazilian birds, whose abject stupidity serves no purpose other than to offer up some cheap humor. Clemet’s fantastic tune — the best part of the film’s soundtrack — which chronicles his character’s fall from soap opera star to sadistic henchbird is also criminally underutilized.
But throughout Eisenberg and Hathaway have excellent chemistry. Following the critical success of The Social Network, Eisenberg continues with his thread of playing the socially awkward protagonist with much gusto. Combined with Blu’s wide-eyed cuteness, the actor’s vocal talents make for a potent underdog. Hathaway, however, does the opposite: As a strong female companion, the actress brings certain likeability to Jewel, making the character a budding love interest that Blu deserves — an inspirational albeit relatable figure that never makes him out to look like a mockery.
A common theme in Rio is freedom — whether it is independence from physical or emotional restraints, the characters in Blue Sky Studios’ newest offering are constantly looking for the meaning of the phrase, “The sky is the limit.” Ironically, Saldanha’s reluctance to expand his film’s straightforward plot is what negates its lasting appeal. However, fortunately its loveable leads and beautiful locations make for a fantastic trip for the children, whereas for adults, it makes for a tender 96 minute escape from the stresses of life.