By Matt Brunson
DIRECTED BY Carlos Saldanha
STARS Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg
The color-drenched animated yarn Rio, which bursts onto the screen scene like a Starburst commercial writ large, contains an early sequence in which the film's caged animal protagonist inadvertently bounces out the back of a moving vehicle and finds himself in strange environs. This is similar to the opening of the recent Rango, which found its central critter likewise falling out of a car and thus suddenly becoming exposed to a life less ordinary. But the difference between the pictures soon becomes clear. Extending an olive branch to adult viewers, Rango was crafty enough to include references to such decidedly grown-up fare as Apocalypse Now and Chinatown. For its part, Rio is strictly for the kids, and anyone expecting this Brazilian-set film to contain any references to City of God (or, heck, even The Boys from Brazil) will be sorely disappointed.
As straight-ticket children's fare, Rio is better than many toon flicks aimed squarely at this undiscriminating audience (Gnomeo & Juliet, for example), with its visual splendor and Jesse Eisenberg's patented nerd shtick helping overcome deficiencies in the narrative and a slew of humdrum ancillary characters. Eisenberg provides the voice for Blu, a macaw raised from infancy by a Minnesota bookworm named Linda (Leslie Mann). A bumbling scientist (Rodrigo Santoro) convinces Linda to bring Blu to Rio de Janeiro so he can mate with Jewel (Anne Hathaway) in an attempt to prevent the extinction of the species, but the feathered pair hardly prove to be "lovebirds" -- as they themselves later point out, they're more like "acquaintance birds." A smuggler (voiced by Carlos Ponce but oddly looking like Justin Timberlake) steals the rare birds with the assistance of his two imbecilic minions and a Scar-like cockatoo named Nigel (Jemaine Clement), and it's up to the timid Blu and the feisty Jewel with a little help from their avian friends (as well as one drooling bulldog) to extract themselves from this dire predicament.
Except for its use in one stunning aerial sequence set in the skies around Rio's Christ the Redeemer statue, the 3-D is (as is often the case) negligible and only in place to justify elevated ticket prices. Visually, the film commands attention on its own, not only in the flight sequences but also during the musical numbers. But the story is drab and uninvolving, and the big-name cast (Hathaway, Jamie Foxx, will.i.am, George Lopez) is ill-equipped to bring the dull characters to life. The exception is Eisenberg, who is accorded the script's few decent lines and draws some mild laughs from them. Of course, coming so soon after The Social Network, it's hard not to recall Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg; as continuing proof that Rio misses its mark at connecting with adults, there are no references to Blu as the creator of FaceBeak.