Friday, April 11, 2014

For the Birds: RIO 2

Three years out from Blue Sky Animation’s Rio, the only thing I can remember is the vague sense of surprised enjoyment I had with the film’s pleasantly colorful, vibrantly musical nature. The story wasn’t much. It followed the world’s last male blue macaw (Jesse Eisenberg) as he was taken from wintry Minnesota to mid-Carnival Rio de Janeiro to meet the world’s last female blue macaw (Anne Hathaway). Fish-out-of-water – or is that bird-out-of-something? – antics ensued. It was cute and amiable, but what elevated it to minor noteworthiness is the charm and novelty in its Brazilian setting and mood, communicated with a sense of authenticity. Director and co-writer Carlos Saldanha was born in Rio, so the delight in its locale felt genuine. The movie was a big hit, so here’s the inevitable Rio 2 in which Saldanha takes those birds on a logical plot progression. The first movie was about the last two blue macaws. What the sequel presupposes is, what if they aren’t the last?

The goofy birder scientists from the first film (Leslie Mann and Rodrigo Santoro) are off on an expedition in the middle of the Amazon when they think they’ve spotted a hidden nest of blue macaws. This excites Anne Hathaway’s bird, so Jesse Eisenberg’s bird (Jesse Eisenbird, if you will) agrees to pack up their three little kids (Rachel Crow is the only voice that stands out) and fly off to meet up with others of their species. Of course, these city birds aren’t used to jungle living, so much time is spent on the expected culture clash. Some food chain related violence leads to some bits of dark humor that’s cute sometimes. I liked the singing capybara that gets swallowed by a predator and then keeps on singing. Later, some capybaras are rapidly eaten down to the bone by piranhas for no other reason than a quick sight gag. I laughed then, too.

Once our protagonists meet the wild flock’s gruff patriarch (Andy Garcia), his dotty sister (Rita Moreno), and a strong, handsome alpha-male (Bruno Mars), the story really gets going. Hathaway takes flight with this flock, fitting in right away. They’re her long-lost family! Eisenbird grumbles, pouts, and stubbornly wants to head back to the city. He bristles when the wild birds mock him, saying he’s just a “pet.” Which he is, but never mind that I guess. Built out of plot points and conflicts that are instantly familiar to anyone who has seen a Hollywood animated film in the last thirty years, Rio 2 is entirely devoid of surprise. Every subplot resolves precisely like you’d guess, lending the time spent getting there a sense of thinness slowly stretched to fill space. It even trots out the old accidentally-shoot-the-winning-goal-into-the-other-team’s-net trick. Originality is not high on the agenda here.

The narrative splinters, unfocused, with little momentum. Characters from the first movie are dutifully roped into this one. Two little musical birds with the voices of and Jamie Foxx tag along to the Amazon to look for fresh talent for their animals-only Carnival talent show. At least it gives them something to do, which is more than can be said for comic relief toucan George Lopez, who joins the trip and is basically forgotten. Also lurking around is the mad cockatoo voiced by Jemaine Clement. This time he has two sidekicks: a poisonous frog (Kristin Chenoweth, who gets a chance to sing, of course) and a silent anteater. They’re superfluous villains, as the movie builds a far more tangible threat in the form of illegal loggers threatening to imperil the blue macaws’ habitat. Essentially a group version of George C. Scott’s poacher from The Rescuers Down Under, these guys menace our kindly scientists with chainsaws and machetes and eventually plan to dynamite the macaws’ gorgeous jungle oasis. So what’s the big deal about a maniacal cockatoo in the face of all that?

At least Rio 2 still finds reasons to sing and dance, where the movie’s color and sound really get to stretch their wings. I lost interest in the plot and found the characters – Eisenbird, especially – grating in their repetitive predictability. But when those birds take flight in Busby Berkeley formations to a syncopated Brazilian/hip-hop beat, it provides fleeting satisfaction. Its best is the short opening number by Janelle Monae, worth hearing on its own. The version on the soundtrack album is better, anyway. Plus, that way you don’t have to sit through the rest of the movie. As a whole it is big, empty, and generally pleasant. I just wish it could’ve told a story worth telling or figured out how to make the characters interesting on any level. Maybe kids will like this, but it certainly lacks the depth and invention better family films can provide. At least it’s better than any of Blue Sky’s Ice Age sequels.

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