Flight of fancy: Colorful 'Rio' takes unexpected trek from Minnesota tundra to Brazil’s slums
There are some places you anticipate American animated movies to take you — bodies of water, suburban lawns, hives, ant colonies, princesses’ castles, outer space — landscapes generic enough for specificity to be in the hand of the animator. Cities, with their pesky real-world reference points, are harder to come by. So traveling from the jungles of Rio de Janeiro to Minnesota’s tundra then back to Brazil is a happy mark of the ambition guiding “Rio,’’ a new animated movie from 20th Century Fox.
You don’t expect to encounter the city’s slums or its Carnival, but there they both are as major parts of the plot (Don Rhymer, Joshua Sternin, and Jeffrey Ventimilia are the credited screenwriters). As stories go, this one has a simple yet descriptive surface: It’s a rescue movie. A newborn cerulean Spix’s Macaw has been poached from its equatorial home, shipped to the upper Midwest, and raised by a bookworm named Linda, whose voice belongs to Leslie Mann and whose look belongs to Tina Fey. Linda calls the bird Blu and raises him as a pet and friend. Despite his attempts at self-taught flight, he remains gressorial and speaks to himself and other animals in Jesse Eisenberg’s stop-and-go whine.
A Brazilian ornithologist named Túlio (Rodrigo Santoro) arrives to inform Linda that Blu’s species is virtually extinct and he would like to mate him with its only other remaining member. Linda and Blu make the skeptical trip south. Even after their arrival I was skeptical, too. Would Brazil just be a vivid backdrop? Would we see everything through a visitor’s eyes? Would most of the movie’s Brazilians look as much like Grand Theft Auto dropouts as do the darker-skinned thugs who kidnap Blu and his highly reluctant paramour, Jewel (Anne Hathaway)? And are there no domestic animals that sound like they speak any Portuguese? (Jamie Foxx, Will.i.am, Tracy Morgan, George Lopez, and the inspired Jemaine Clement do some of the nonhuman voices.)
But after a while, “Rio,’’ which a high-spirited Carlos Saldanha directed, makes the surprising and seemingly inarguable assertion that, if we’re not all Brazilian, then, at the very least, Brazil is a state of mind. Saldanha capably directed or codirected three “Ice Age’’ movies. Where those films were cheeky, secretly depressing tales of death and devastation, “Rio’’ is a party tinged quietly with class. Túlio and Linda search the city for Blu and Jewel. Their search requires them to visit the favelas where one of the thieves lives. More than once, it looks as if the movie might make a superficial overreach into miserable “City of God’’ territory. But it’s more optimistic than that film — at least for the birds.
Much of the pleasure does stem from a sideways tourism. You’re thrilled to be somewhere new for an American cartoon, and what a relief that place feels and sounds reasonably authentic. Sérgio Méndes supervised the soundtrack, which is too heavy on the will.i.am and Jamie Foxx. But apparently samba is animators’ music. They appear to appreciate Rio as a one-of-kind architectural and ecological marvel naturally abundant with song. The movie opens with a beautiful sequence in which birds shake and sway and throb (it’s brought to a halt by the arrival of cages and nets) and puts Méndes’s version of “Mas Que Nada’’ (one of them) to bracing use as we sail around the city’s Christ the Redeemer statue (“Ooooh, aria ail/ Opa! Opa Opa!’’).
Clement, meanwhile, provides another musical highlight as the movie’s villainous cockatoo, a former matinee idol named Nigel whose big pulsing number is enough to leave you sad that it’s the only one he has. There is, however, the consolation of Eisenberg’s voice. As music, it’s exactly the opposite of Méndes’s — full of mucus, apprehension, and doubt. But under the intoxicating tropical circumstances, it also becomes the last thing you’d ever expect: exotic.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.