DIRECTED BY CARLOS SALDANHA
STARRING: JESSE EISENBERG, ANNE HATHAWAY, GEORGE LOPEZ, WILL I AM, JAMIE FOXX, RODRIGO SANTORO, JEMAINE CLEMENT, TRACY MORGAN, JAKE T. AUSTIN, WANDA SYKES, JANE LYNCH with RODRIGO SANTORO and LESLIE MANN
Every animal movie has ‘the Lion King’ plot in one way or another. ‘the Lion King’ itself derived from Shakespeare and Greek tragedies to some extent, but I’d still like to call it ‘the Lion King’ plot. Kind of makes it an animation standard. If you remember, ‘the Lion King’ was about a misplaced protagonist getting back to where he rightfully belongs as he takes his throne in the end. He’s like the Michael Corleone of the Pride Lands with the twist of responsibility that gets him back in the game, powered by purpose, fuelled by love, supported by an assortment of the foolhardy and the failsafe.
Walt Disney pictures might not have pioneered the coming-of-age movie, but they animated it first. ‘the Little Mermaid,’ ‘Tarzan’ through ‘Dinosaur,’ even ‘Lilo & Stitch,’ for that matter. They’ve raised the question of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ much too often and they’ve resolved it as well to convincing extents. Far-fetched, yes. But convincing. Tarzan doesn’t leave the jungle, it’s Jane who stays back. It’s predominantly for the happy ending, so as to not send audiences back with a part of their hearts being taken from them than them leaving it behind as a token of having really ‘felt.’ Bolt, the dog, Rapunzel in ‘Tangled,’ who could so easily abandon the one she called ‘Mother’ for so long.
But then again, is ‘Win Win’ any different? That fine feel-good movie by Thomas McCarthy, one rooted with fondness in the American household. It dealt with a 17 year old finding home away from home; a family away from his Mother. His story was a triumph in that we know he wanted it. Like a David Copperfield away from his stepfather. But isn’t his desire just another device to manipulate us, to make us root for accomplishment of something he might not entirely desire? Patrick Kenzie in ‘Gone Baby Gone’ would put duty and moral obligation before everything. Disney would refute it, but only by rendering the other grass greener. We know who’d come out as heartless in the end.
‘Rio’ is like ‘the Lion King’ as much as ‘Madagascar’ was. Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) is a Blue Macaw and purportedly the last male of his kind. Like Alex the Lion, he’s taken away from the forests of Brazil as a baby and fostered elsewhere in a series of fortunate circumstances. Like Alex, again, he grows to love his place of refuge and the girl who willingly accepts him into her life. Linda Gunderson (Leslie Mann) is like the visiting crowd at the Central Zoo where Minnesota is like Alex’s New York. Alex can’t even roar right, Blu can’t fly. And he’s as convinced as Alex was in the fact that he’s found his talent and is content with it. He plays the nerd against the empty-head jock in Alex. He doesn’t have friends, though, but it’s easy for him to make some. Like Bolt, the dog, people pity him. And by ‘people,’ I mean a Red-Crested Cardinal Pedro (Will I am) and a Canary named Nico (Jamie Foxx).
Linda, on her part, is the sexy Librarian (literally) staying put until an ornithologist pecks at her door. It’s not her that he’s after. It’s Blu. He’s the last surviving male of his species and they want to take him down to Rio De Janeiro to mate with what looks to be the last female in Jewel (Anne Hathaway). The cause is bigger than the movie, obviously, but I felt it eluded. We’re looking at a bird that is almost extinct, a bird that watchers would go weak in the knees for, but we don’t feel it. To us, Blu is like Bolt, the dog, with feathers and a more characteristic voice. As much as I could find stereotype in just about everything the movie tried, I can’t help but give it to them for casting Eisenberg. Also clever is the little nudge on the ‘last woman in the world’ idea. Blu now has another reason to fall in love with Jewel. She’s all he’s got, she’s good and he can’t do better. And vice-versa.
The fact that Blu is a rare bird is double-edged, if you haven’t guessed it already. There’s a Mufasa in Nigel (Jermaine Clement) who’s a washed-out show cockatoo with thieving Monkeys to command than Hyenas. Actually, Nigel isn’t that much of a Mufasa; he’s more of the evil Roo in ‘Horton Hears a Who,’ without Dr. Seuss’ allegorical implications. Rafael (George Lopez) is Gil-meets-Gusteau where Blu does his own thinking; he’s smart. He’s like Simba with Nala for company. And Luiz the bulldog (Tracy Morgan) is like the Pelican Nigel in ‘Finding Nemo’ in a 100 percent match.
I like to think that no animated feature is unimpressive after having got its voices right. But then there are those films that have almost nothing to show. Like the ‘Ice Age’ series. Like ‘Open Season.’ Like ‘Chicken Little’ which would rank one on the worst of Disney. ‘Rio’ is somewhere in the middle. The bird is adorable with Eisenberg’s fresh exploit as exciting as Jay Baruchel in ‘How to Train your Dragon.’ The story is adequate. With the right prick at the right place, we’re supposed to have had tears as the end credits rolled. But it doesn’t do that. Linda doesn’t grow on you like Penny from ‘Bolt’ did. Jewel is no Dory. Nigel doesn’t spring a surprise like Anton Ego (from ‘Ratatouille’). Carlos Saldanha and his team have cracked the story with some high-end animation in hand. And yet they find themselves caught in a warp of the overused and the not-to-be-used.
What should have been a spectacle is reduced to a postcard at best. If I were to suggest a remedy, I’d say go hand-drawn. CGI made the procession look like Orcs marching with Samba music than a Howard Score. CGI made Linda look like a nerdy Barbie than an Ariel, Jasmine or a Tiana. What you can’t shoot, you generate. What you shouldn’t generate, you draw. Those who can’t draw ought to be content with just dreaming. And ‘Rio’ is like that dream that couldn’t quite make it beyond the software codes; where the magic, unlike Blu, couldn’t open its own cage-door.