Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
May 2011

Light as a feather

Impressive animation can't save 'Rio' from its strict adherence to our expectations

Rio
20th Century Fox
Director: Carlos Saldanha
Screenplay: Don Rhymer, Joshua Stermin, Jeffrey Ventimilia and Sam Harper
Starring: The voices of Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway, Leslie Mann, will.i.am, Jamie Foxx, Rodrigo Santoro, Tracy Morgan and Jemaine Clement
Rated PG / 1 hour, 36 minutes
(out of four)

Rio is a perfectly nice and lovely-looking movie whose sensibilities simply cannot measure up to current standards of animated filmmaking. There is nothing demonstrably bad about it. On the contrary, the animation itself is quite good. The problem is, it seems all too comfortable staying within painfully bland conventions - and content to appeal almost exclusively to a very young audience.

Sure, the filmmakers throw in a few adult jokes here and there, but all in all there's not much for anyone above the age of 11 to really grab ahold of.

And there's no shame in that. I'm sure Rio plays well with family audiences, and more power to it. But in comparison to any first-rate animated film, it's going to come up severely short.

Our expectations are set up within the first five minutes, and the film does absolutely nothing to violate those expectations. The screenplay is in dire need of some life - some kind of visceral feeling behind the story. Instead, we get a film all too eager to stay inside the lines.

Rio centers around an ideally matched couple - a woman named Linda (voiced by Leslie Mann), who runs a bookstore, and her pet Macaw, cleverly named Blu (Jesse Eisenberg), whom she has raised since she was a girl. The two are a perfect fit. Both are cloistered and shy, and completely comfortable being so. They have precious little experience with their own kind, and little to no interest in changing that fact. They enjoy their routine - count on it, even, and have for the last 15 years. Neither could survive without the other. They will never leave each other's sight.

So entrenched in their routine are Linda and Blu that they initially balk at the chance for a free trip to Rio de Janeiro - even though they both need a vacation, and even though it's for an unquestionably good cause. An ornithologist named Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) bursts into the shop one day and insists that Blu is one of the two last birds of his kind left on the planet - and that the other, a female named Jewel (Anne Hathaway), is in Rio, just waiting to re-populate.

Despite their initial hesitance, Linda and Blu eventually agree to the trip (the exact reason why they change their minds escapes me, but it's probably along the lines of "the plot requires it - I mean come on, 'Rio' is the name of the movie," or something like that) and off they go for the adventure, yawn, of their lives.

Being the rare specimens that they are, Blu and Jewel aren't desirable only to altruistic animal lovers like Tulio - no, they can fetch a pretty penny on the black market as well. So it's only inevitable that they'll be kidnaped by smugglers and forced to escape.

One hitch, though. Blu, having first been found and adopted as a baby and subsequently raised indoors, has never learned how to fly. Once he's out in the animal kingdom for the first time, all those indoor skills he's acquired over the years don't do him much good. Despite his insistence that there are around 40 bird species in the world that don't fly, his inability to do so (and paralyzing fear of learning how) is quite the handicap. After all, two Macaws chained together who have to travel exclusively by foot are no match for the villainous Nigel (Jemaine Clement), a sinister Cockatoo (aren't they all?) who serves as the smugglers' own personal bounty hunter.

Nigel has the single best scene in the movie - probably the only sequence in which Rio really gets outside its own skin. It's a fantastic musical number wherein Nigel explains the reasons for his villainy. Anyone familiar with Flight of the Conchords will immediately know that this song is the brainchild of Clement, one half of the Conchords duo, whose signature musical style brilliantly (if all too briefly) brings the film to life.

If the rest of the movie had the personality and verve of that sequence, we might have really had something.

Alas, most of the rest of the movie is all too expected, and all too easy. Linda and Blu will finally break out of their shells, Blu and Jewel will fall in love and save their species in the process, Tulio and Linda will find in one another the soulmate they've been searching for, and Blu will finally learn how to fly at a moment when the utmost courage is required. If any of that comes as a surprise, then you've probably never seen a movie before.

As much as I would have liked to really enjoy Rio on the strength of its animation alone, the film holds itself back far too much and far too often. This is not a bad movie; it's just on par with a thousand more you've already seen.

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