“Get up and join in the fun,” sing a lot of birds at the start of Rio. The frame roams over a 3D-animated approximation of a Brazilian jungle, and the colorful creatures all join in the same lyrics: “Dance with a stranger, romance and danger, / Magic could happen for real, in Rio!” If these assorted birds aren’t precisely “of a feather,” as they suggest, they are bright and loud and alike enough to establish that this Rio is not real in any way.
And so what else is new? Nothing much in Rio. With a plot and characterizations drawn from elsewhere, the movie begins with a typical trauma lite: one of the happy-happy birds, a baby blue macaw (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg), is kidnapped and shipped off to snowy Minnesota (helpfully identified in a subtitle as “Not Rio”). Here he’s rescued by a very nice little girl named Linda (child’s voice by Sofia Scarpa Saldanha, adult’s by Leslie Mann), who names him Blu and keeps him through her childhood and college and into her career as a bookstore owner. As this life history is managed in montage of framed photos showing the pair as if they’re siblings—at a spelling bee, dressed for prom, at graduation—you gather that each might do well to meet someone of his or her “feather,” that is, a companion of the same species. Not to worry: this is precisely what the film has in mind.
As cozy as Blu and Linda seem inside their bookstore with the apartment above, their lives are turned upside down when a Brazilian ornithologist named Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) drops by to inform them that Blu is the last of his kind. Not only that, but Tulio happens to have a female blue macaw, named Jewel (Anne Hathaway) back in Rio de Janeiro, just waiting to mate with Blu so they can “preserve their species.”
Predictably, the trip doesn’t go as planned. First, Jewel is put off by the nerdy and fretful Blu, and second, the two birds end up stolen from the lab by exotic-animal traffickers. At this point they’re also chained together, which irks Jewel to no end, mostly due to the fact that Blu never learned to fly in Minnesota and so, even when they do have a chance to escape—which they do—they have to walk.
All this walking gives them time to argue, like the couples in The Princess and the Frog, the first Shrek, It Happened One Night, and oh yes, Ice Age, also directed by Carlos Saldanha. As Jewel fumes and Blu fusses (and sounds a lot like Woody Allen), they’re joined by supporting players, other birds who do their darnedest to ensure the romance happens, offering Blu advice and arranging for the macaws to have some alone-ish time. Most of these moments devolve quickly into declarations of differences: Blue wants to return to Linda (read: domestication), and Jewel wants to soar free in the big blue Brazilian skies.
Still, they’re destined to be together, and so they are pitted against villains who will help them realize that, including a gnarly cockatoo named Nigel (Jemaine Clement) and the-oh-so-insidiously goateed human smuggler Marcel (Carlos Ponce). While the good birds (voiced by Jamie Foxx, will.i.am., and George Lopez) are pretty much as dull as can be (especially their songs), the villains are strangely strange. Not only does Nigel have a grim backstory (revealed in a series of telenovela-like flashbacks during a song, it turns out he used to be a famous TV star, and resents his current abjection), he’s also a cannibal (he tears into a chicken leg with notable ferocity). And not only are Marcel’s human henchmen dopy and slow, but they’re also thrilled when Carnaval comes and they have to put on very short shorts with silver sequins, “to fit in.”
The Carnaval parade would seem to be Rio‘s big moment, the event that makes it unlike every other kids’ movie with this plot, that marks its sensational place and stages that time when “Magic could happen for real, in Rio.” Again, the film backs off. While the smugglers and Linda and Tulio and even a slobbery bulldog voiced by Tracy Morgan all put on sequins, masks, and feathers and shake their booties, the plot doesn’t deviate from exactly where you know it will go, when humans and birds paired up properly—and heterosexually.