Hop is still a fresh enough memory that one is tempted to give Rio credit solely for not sucking. Lord knows there's nothing else to give it credit for: it is nearly the platonic ideal of a children's movie that is completely devoid of either merit or flaw, existing solely that it might exist. Some of the time it is a touch better than that, as in the design; some of the time it is a touch worse, as in the music. But a few wee deviations from a baseline of purest mediocrity aren't enough, in the grand scheme, to call any attention away from Rio's essential core of magnificent averageness.
It briefly does not seem like this shall be the case. The film opens with its best scene, in which a menagerie of Brazilian jungle birds conduct a sprawling Busby Berkeley-flavored song and dance number, a coruscation of charmingly designed, brightly colored cartoon animals dancing to the beat of one of the few musical moments in this heavily musical film that actually evokes Rio de Janeiro with any particular success. It is a playful, energetic, completely fun moment - I saw the film in 2-D, but I suppose it plays tremendously well in 3-D - and it promises an effervescent, buoyant comedy that doesn't necessarily come to pass. At any rate, the film only comes remotely close to this level of visual extravagance and kinetic energy once more, near the other end, after a long steady drip of kiddie flick pablum: celebrity voices that call too much attention to themselves, pop songs that don't belong, spastic physical humor. There is a startling lack of reliance on shit jokes, for a children's movie. That came as a nice surprise.
At any rate, during that opening number, a little baby macaw, blue from head to talon is delightedly hopping and bopping, when he decides to join in the fun - this despite not yet having learned to fly. He tumbles to the ground, and that's where the poachers find him. In no time at all, he's sold to an exotic pet dealer and ends up stranded in the depths of a Minnesota winter (the film make about 30 dozen jokes about how cold and icy Minnesota is, which makes sense when you remember that the upper Midwest is covered in a thick layer of permafrost), where he is found by a little girl - not bought, because that would make one of the heroes complicit in the exotic animals trade - and raised up to be her beloved companion.
15 years later, the bird, Blu (Jesse Eisenberg), and the woman, Linda (Leslie Mann) are living a life of quiet contentment, when an ornithologist from Rio, Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro, the only prominent cast member who is actually Brazilian), comes along with news that Blu is the last male of his species, and the scientists in Brazil want to mate him with the last female of his species. This is getting really boring to recap, so basically Blu and the lady bird, Jewel (Anne Hathaway) end up fleeing from bird smugglers with an insane cockatoo (Jemaine Clement), finding help from a pair of enthusiastic birds, cardinal Pedro (will.i.am) and canary Nico (Jamie Foxx), and a wise toucan, Rafael (George Lopez, theoretically cast because fuck, it's not like Americans can tell 'em apart), and a bulldog, Luiz (Tracy Morgan). Along the way, Blu's terror of flying - his terror of life in general, basically, as with most every Jesse Eisenberg character) is established as the personal flaw he will have to inspiringly overcome in the third act, while the omnipresent ticking clock about "the roads will be closed soon for Carnaval!" lets us know where the climax will occur, though the twin facts that Rio is set in Rio, and every single American movie ever set in Rio has a major scene set during the Carnaval parade, have already pretty much clued us in.
Directed by Rio native/Ice Age veteran, Carlos Saldanha,Rio is primarily good for one thing: making a cartoon version of Rio de Janeiro look as glowing and and vibrant as a basket of candied fruit. In this it is more successful than even the most touristy of live-action Rio pictures, given that the animators at Blue Sky studios have the luxury of making their favelas look as sanitary and storybook-exotic as they wish. Part of me finds this reprehensible in some abstract way, and part of me knows that it would be really damn dumb to expect Lil' City of God from the people whose chief claim to fame are those Tex Avery-influence Scrat cartoons. Anyway, while I could have wished for a bit more of the bright colors, the film overall is warm enough that it's always fun to look at, even if it's mostly content to re-create every postcard you've ever seen in rounded-edges CGI.
With essentially nothing to do, the cast mostly just reads lines and calls it a day, though Eisenberg gives a more nuanced, innocent performance than the film really has any right to demand. No-one, not even professional ruiner of music will.i.am, is so distracting that it wrecks the film; nor does anybody do much to add anything, though Hathaway's blandly middle-American voice is kind of out of place.
Only the music registers as a serious disappointment: unexpectedly, Rio is effectively a musical, but most of the music is, well, typical of will.i.am and Jamie Foxx, let us say, and leave it at that. "I don't like samba!" shouts Blu at one point, so I imagine he's probably glad to wind up in a movie with so very little of it. But for God's sake, how do you set a movie in a city as well-known for the vitality of its music culture as Rio de Janeiro, and then use the same crappy pop that shows up in every last damn middle-of-the-road family film? Even worse, how do you end up in that situation after you've hired Sergio Mendes as your music supervisor? Imagine if T-Bone Burnett had filled the O Brother soundtrack with Britney Spears, and you begin to see the scope of it. Herein, we find Jemaine Clement rapping "Like an abandoned school, I've got not principal", the kind of anti-clever line that bothers me more the more I think about it.
But like I said, that's only a dent in the wall of impersonal proficiency that marks the bulk of the movie: anodyne characters, anodyne situations, anodyne gags, but not actively harmful. Since it seems that this is where we've ended up as a culture, at least I can be grateful that there are so relatively few pop culture jokes, and a couple of them are even wanly funny.
Last note: if you are a grown-up and are obliged to see the movie, I found the best way to make it through was to really focus on the film's depiction of the relationship between bird Blu and human Linda. All of the visual shorthands used, the bulk of the performance, and much of the dialogue, plays exactly the way it would if they were romantically involved, which leads me to read Rio as a tragicomedy about incompatible sexual partners agreeing to let each other find more socially acceptable lovers. In that light, the weirdness of a G-rated movie hinging on a scientist forcing birds to copulate barely even registers - and incidentally, if this is what Pixar's cancelled Newt was going to turn out like, it's probably no great loss.