For decades, Disney dominated the animated feature market with its unique brand of family-friendly fun. The first challenger to the throne was Pixar with their 1995 computer generated Toy Story, completely changing the nature of the game forever. However, in 2001 Dreamworks (made up from some former Disney employees) smashed previous expectations with the surprise hit Shrek, and the floodgates were open. Upstarts Blue Sky Studios came along the following year with Ice Age, directed by Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha, and its success has led to two sequels to date and another on the way. Saldanha (also behind Robots) departs from his run of prehistoric comedies, has moved to decidedly warmer climes for the latest Blue Sky outing.
Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network) lives in domestic bliss with his loving owner Linda in suburban Minnesota. Their lives change when they learn that Blu is the last male of a rare species of Blue Macaw, and is whisked off to Rio to breed with the reluctantly captive Jewel (Anne Hathaway, Love and Other Drugs). Things go horribly wrong when they are kidnapped by poachers. Not only must they escape the clutches of the poachers – and the talons of their evil pet, a cockatoo named Nigel (Jermaine Clement, Flight of the Conchords) and his monkey henchmen – but Blu must survive in the wild jungles of Rio and find his way back to Linda.
The increasingly crowded animation market is perpetually relying on big names to attach themselves to the projects, and a barrage of intertextual references to attract a wider audience than those pesky kids and their limited disposable budgets. When this works, as was the case with the first Shrek and Ice Age, it is a highly succesful recipe. However, all too often this approach results in far too many anachronistic jokes, pop-cultural references and wasted talent that alienates younger children and baffles the adults. Thankfully, Rio strikes a perfect balance between kiddie-focused and pop-frenzy by keeping the footnotes to a minimum, and providing us with a film that is simply a joy to watch. Despite a fairly derivative storyline, one that replicates the buddy-comedy ‘fish-out-of-water’ antics of Madagascar, Finding Nemo and to a lesser extent, Saldanha’s own Ice Age, the team behind the original Ice Age know when they are on to a good thing and stick to it. Distinguishing itself with a lively narrative, a collection of genuinely catchy tunes to create one of the most purely fun animated movies of recent memory.
The animation is gorgeous, from the opening cutesy shots of a baby Blu in the jungles of Rio through to the eye-popping scenes of Rio’s famous Carnival during the gripping climax, Blue Sky demonstrate that they have come leaps and bounds since the sometimes blocky look of Ice Age. Similarly, the voice cast provides a great deal of strength to the film. While it is very easy to dismiss the collection of celebrity voices as pure commercialism, everybody involved earns their letters on the marquee with well-rounded and often hilarious performances. From the more recognisable voices of the already typecast Eisenberg and distinctive Tracy Morgan (as a bulldog named Luiz), to an almost unrecognisable Will.i.am and Jamie Foxx as a pair of hip-hop homebirds, Rio is a rarity in giving well-rounded characterisations to almost everybody in the cast. Framed by an incredibly simple story that will appeal to the younger members of the audience without alienating the older ones, something the recent (by brilliant) Rango struggled to accomplish, Rio is the type of animated comedy that is likely to be enjoyed by all members of the audience.
The Reel Bits: After a brace of Ice Age films, Rio proves that Blue Sky Studios is a force to be reckoned with on the animation circuit. It’s light and breezy story has instant appeal and the winning combination of gorgeous animation and a likeable voice cast are sure to make this a winner.
Far from the occasional offerings of decades ago, animated features now comprise their own substantive genre. In tandem with their increased numbers, the scrutiny on their casting has also expanded, with tried and tested vocal talents making way for celebrity drawing power. With the standard set by Disney efforts The Lion King and Aladdin as well as Pixar’s Toy Story, and cemented by the widespread popularity of the Shrek series, a spate of family friendly films have filtered into popular consciousness, propelled by the big name stars at the voice acting helm. Accordingly, all manner of movies – from Shark Tale to Over The Hedge, Cars to Kung Fu Panda, and Madagascar to Yogi Bear – have capitalised upon performers better known for appearing on camera in preference over professionals in the field. The latest animal-oriented animated offering to make its way into cinemas, Rio continues the trend. And, like many of its recent counterparts, it places an undue amount of emphasis on the high-profile cast of Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg, Tracy Morgan, Will.i.am and Jamie Foxx, instead of valuing basic elements such as storytelling, substance and anything more than a superficial sense of style.
In a flash of colour, a flurry of energy and a frenzy of familiar voices, Rio attempts to imitate the distinct character of its tropical setting. All other aspects of the feature are designed to highlight the fun and flavour of Latin America, however the film’s limited success in doing so comes at the expense of the simplistic narrative. Indeed, the story itself is scant and slight, following an inter-species friendship as well as a worldly awakening to things both overlooked and unusual. Drowned out by chase sequences and more than a few musical numbers, the themes of acceptance aspired to are secondary to the playful tone of the movie, and are further tempered by the celebrity calibre of the talent. Not that Hathaway, Eisenberg and company do a bad job of voicing the critters, however there is never any question that their contribution – rather than the bright imagery – is the real focal point of the film. Only Flight Of The Conchords’ Jemaine Clement manages to break the boundary between his actual and animated efforts, with his turn as villain Nigel (and accompanying song) the undisputed highlight of an otherwise average family film.
The Reel Bits: Yet another animated feature that elevates the celebrity voice cast over the story, Rio lacks the flair suggested by its feisty moniker. Had the emphasis been reversed, the charm of the concept may have won out, however what little style the film does boast is simply drowned out by too many familiar tones.
Rio is released on April 7, 2011 in Australia by 20th Century Fox.