[11 April 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
By the old standards, all an animated film needed was a particular quest, a friendly protagonist, and an evil villain to get by. Cinderella had her desire for a better life and a horrible wicked stepmother (and stepsisters) to stand in her way. Snow White had a nasty “who’s the fairest” competition with a conceited wicked queen, while everyone from Hansel and Gretel to Dorothy Gale had to contend with wicked witches of one kind or another.
For the hyperactive sequel to the already overly busy film Rio, Rio 2, the filmmakers have decided that one adversary (or adversarial situation) is not enough. Instead, they give our Spix Macaw hero Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) at least ten different chores—character or circumstantial—to overcome, and even then, it doesn’t believe that’s enough to keep the attention of the ADHD-addled audience. In addition to the pitfalls, it offers songs, 3D set-piece, and enough CG eye candy to give the world diabetes twice over, rendering an already messy movie meaningless.
Leaving off where the first film finished, Blu is now living in Brazil with his bird bride Jewel (Anne Hathaway) and their three little hatchlings. She wants to keep the kids from being influenced by technology (labor #1). He wants to enjoy the fruits of civilization and his times as a household pet. When their human owners Linda (Leslie Mann) and Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) head off into the Amazon and discover a whole new flock of blue Spix Macaws, Jewel is eager to fly there and see what’s going on. Blue is less than enthusiastic (labor #2). Eventually, they gather together a crew including carnival talent impresarios Nico (Jamie Foxx), Pedro (will.i.am), and Rafael (George Lopez) and head off into the deepest, darkest parts of the rainforest.
Eventually, the gang meet up with these supposedly extinct birds, and they turn out to be part of Jewel’s extended family. There’s her dad, Eduardo (Andy Garcia) who hates pets (labor #3), outsiders (labor #4) and anyone his little baby bird girl could even consider being with (labor #5), outside of his right hand man (and Jewel’s former flame), Roberto (Bruno Mars - labor #6). Turns out, everyone is being threatened by an illegal logging operation (labor #7) run by the Big Boss (Miguel Ferrer). This, in turn, has a pack of red parrots (labor #8) eager to overtake the Macaws territory. Blu tries to fit in, but can’t. He also causes concern among Jewel’s kin (labor #9) about his viability as a member of the flock.
Oh, and as luck would have it, our villain from the first film (labor #10), a cockatoo named Nigel (Jemaine Clement) has paired up with Gabi, a love-struck poisonous female frog (labor #11) to get revenge on Blu and his family for what happened before. It’s up to Blu to save the day (is that now an even dozen?).
Phew. That’s a lot of bad for one good bird to deal with - likewise for the soon to be exhausted audience. Rio 2 never relents, never once lets up to let the viewer think about what’s going on, and there’s a good reason for this. This movie wasn’t made for those able to put together rational thoughts. This is a elementary school production preprogrammed for the same age group to enjoy over and over again on a continuous and nerve-shattering loop. No brain drain. Parents who’ve already tired of Despicable Me‘s Minions or their kids crooning Frozen‘s “Let Me Go” ad nauseum will soon have a new noisy nemesis to contend with. Director Carlos Saldanha, back for a second helping of cartoon chaos, believes that any down time is dead time, so he fills in the gaps with musical numbers (too many), pop culture riffs (also too many) and the aforementioned videogame like quests.
Indeed, if you think of each of Blu’s trials as a boss he has to overcome, Rio 2 is a console title with fake feathers. It pushes and pushes, asking the viewer to accept more and more while delivering less and less. With its multicultural casting (notice, the nebbishy fowl from the USA is considered the outsider…) and its welcome minority voice work, this is a movie clearly made for the international audience. Hollywood has clearly fallen in love with the amplified box office it gets from everywhere else around the world. Granted, Rio 2 is never dull and provides colorful images to ogle, but the end result is as empty as the calories in a candy bar. It’s beautiful, if banal.
And then there are those labors. So many of them. So unnecessary. What if Blu had simply flown to the jungle to see his newly discovered kin ala Meet the Parents? The live action version of that set-up made a mint, and we didn’t need an overacting bird with delusions of Shakespearean grandeur cuddling up to a toxic toad for subplot support. The logger angle goes nowhere, since it is never really viewed as a reliable threat (and the birds take it down with unbelievable ease). Roberto is around because Bruno Mars needs a soundtrack song, and the red parrots “WAR!” cry turns out to be an invitation for a surreal sort of mid-air soccer match. For every chore placed in front of our characters, Rio 2 relies on silly coincidence or contrivance to make it eventually go away, leading to the question, why have them in the first place?
The answer is indicative of what’s wrong with the so-called “family film” today. Rio 2 knows that a sequel has to be bigger, splashier, and hopefully better than the original. For the creative team here, two out of three will have to suffice. There is no denying the overall level of talent on display. The artists and renderers deserve all the kudos one can come up with. But with four credited screenwriters (and, one assumes, many more in the background playing “doctor”), the best they could invent, narratively, is adversity after adversity after adversity. Of course, kids don’t care about stuff like this. All they want is familiarity and fun. Rio 2 offers several strong doses of those dynamics. The rest of the movie is proof that more is often less. A lot less.