By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Bursting with color and rippling with samba rhythms, Rio makes you wonder why animated films haven't spent more time in Brazil. The place is tailor-made for a 'toon, with rainforest birds and Carnival revelers alike in gloriously surreal plumage.
Rio comes from the same folks responsible for the slate-gray Ice Age franchise, the dullest palette of any modern animated hits. Flying down to Rio serves them well, with warmer climes carrying over to the characters and comedy. After the sameness of Hop and dirt-brown strangeness of Rango, Rio is vibrantly animated and amusingly voiced, a grabber from its opening sequence.
Director Carlos Saldanha begins in the lush jungle, with a kaleidoscopic dance in flight of too many bird species to list. We're as dazzled by this cageless aviary as the blue macaw chick in a nearby nest that hasn't learned to fly. The "I wish" element of animated adventures is obvious in the chick's adorably oversized eyes.
Poachers crash the party, stealing rare specimens to smuggle, including the chick, who winds up in snowy Moose Lake, Minn., in the care of bookish Linda (voice of Leslie Mann). She names the bird Blu, and over several years they become best friends. Blu never needs to learn how to fly, so complete is his pampering. Jesse Eisenberg voices the mature Blu, who squawks out loud while we hear his pithy thoughts.
Life is good until the arrival of Tulio (Rodrigo Sanchez), an ornithologist from Brazil searching for Blu, who is the last surviving male of his species. The last female blue macaw, Jewel (Anne Hathaway), is in captivity, available for procreation. Linda grudgingly agrees to travel with Blu to Brazil and let nature take its course. Jewel isn't as thrilled to meet Blu as humans are to introduce them.
She's more interested in escaping back to the jungle, and lovestruck Blu tags along, despite being aviation challenged. Saldanha finds creative ways to get him panicked in the air, for much of the time chained to Jewel, whose patience comically runs thin. Linda and Tulio lead a desperate search party, while a gang of exotic bird black marketers capture then lose the rare pair.
Rio could be dismissed as merely a chase movie, but the South American surroundings and the Latin beats propelling the action are fresh sensations. Screenwriter Don Rhymer links colorful, kinetic set pieces with introductions to a menagerie of cheeky chums for Blu and Jewel: the streetwise canary Nico (Jamie Foxx) and cardinal Pedro (will.i.am), a henpecked toucan (George Lopez) and a bulldog named Luiz that should have arrived sooner. He's voiced by Tracy Morgan, who could inform me that my house is on fire and I'd laugh.
There's also what any good animated adventure needs and too few realize: a terrific villain with a show-stopping signature song. In this case it's the bloated, aged cockatoo Nigel (Jemaine Clement), a hench-bird for human smugglers, whose violent envy is spewed in the rap ditty Pretty Bird. Clement sounds like Jeremy Irons, which is appropriate since Nigel is an anthropomorphic villain on par with Irons' Scar from The Lion King.
Rio winds up at samba-soaked Carnival amid elaborate floats, walking puppets and gorgeous showgirls in costumes more G-rated than G-strings. It's a breathtaking sequence, so visually impressive that the crisis Blu and Jewel are facing is temporarily forgotten. Carnival looks like a party I'd love to crash. Blame it on Rio.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.