Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Film Review with Robert Mann - Rio

Rio 3D ****
Rio 2D ***½

The Easter holiday is almost upon us once again and, without the holiday even having actually started yet due to Easter itself arriving unusually late this year, it is already clear what the number one family movie of the period is likely to be (particularly with its main competitors no longer looking to offer quite as much competition as they initially looked like they would, Hop already having gotten off to an extremely underwhelming start and it looking very likely that Mars Needs Moms will be every bit as catastrophic a box office failure over here as it was when it was released in the states).

The latest effort from Blue Sky Studios, the animation studio behind the Ice Age films as well as Robots and Horton Hears A Who!, Rio is a long in development project that has been that has been nurtured by Brazilian born director Carlos Saldanha – for whom this is reportedly a dream project, Rio de Janeiro (which provides the setting for two films released this month, the other being Fast & Furious 5) being both his birth place and the place he called his home for the first twenty five years of his life, after which he left to pursue his passion for animation – for many years. With Rio showcasing his first time writing (alongside co-writer Don Rhymer, whose previous projects include all three Big Momma’s House movies, The Santa Clause 2, Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London, Deck the Halls and Surf’s Up) as well as directing, Saldanha – who previously directed Ice Age: The Meltdown and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs as well as co-directing the first Ice Age film and Robots – has had a lot more creative control over this latest Blue Sky film than he did over his previous collaborations with them and with this he has made something that is slightly different to the films that have preceded from Blue Sky Studios, Rio being far more musical than his more comedic Ice Age movies, not being an all out musical but having its fair share of musical numbers, something which really sets this apart from the other animated features produced by Blue Sky even if the film itself doesn’t necessarily tread any new ground. 

Anyone who has seen one of the trailers for Rio will already know that it isn’t exactly a film to see if you’re looking for an animated feature that is original and different – Blue Sky have never been able to, nor have they even tried to, come close to animation kings Pixar in this regard – but by repeating the same kind of formula to their winning previous movies with the addition of musical numbers, the kind of which perfectly complement a film set in the exotic and vibrant setting of Rio de Janeiro, they have made a film that is as about a sure thing as you’re likely to find at the cinema this Easter, it being a film that is certain to be a box office success and one that is certainly deserving of such success.

Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) is a blue macaw who lives a relaxed and contented existence in a small book store in a little town in Minnesota with his owner Linda (voiced by Leslie Mann). They have been inseparable for pretty much their entire lives and neither has ever known a life outside of their hometown but all this is about to change with the arrival of Brazilian bird scientist Tulio (voiced by Rodrigo Santoro). It turns out that Blu is one of only two blue macaws still in existence, the other being a female named Jewel (voiced by Anne Hathaway) who is back in Rio de Janeiro, and Tulio wants to bring the two of them together in an attempt to save their species from extinction. At first, Linda is reluctant to mess up the routine she has with Blu but realising that he, as a bird who cannot fly, needs to spread his wings, she relents and the two of them head off to Rio along with Tulio, little knowing what adventure lies ahead of them. 

Things don’t exactly get off to a great start as Blu immediately feels out of place in the wild and untamed place that is Rio and its surrounding rainforests and his first encounter with Jewel goes very badly indeed. Jewel, who is more interested in escaping to freedom than saving her species from extinction with Blu, immediately takes a disliking to him and when they are kidnapped by Fernando (voiced by Jake T. Austin), a young homeless boy working for Marcel (voiced by Carlos Ponce), a poacher who makes a killing by selling stolen birds, things only get worse as they become chained together and Blu’s inability to fly turns into a real hindrance. Managing to escape due to the incompetence of Marcel’s oafish fellow smugglers Tipa (voiced by Jeff Garcia) and Armando (voiced by Davi Vieira), Blu and Jewel are unable to fly away because of Blu’s major deficiency and, with Nigel (voiced by Jemaine Clement), the sinister hench-cockatoo of Marcel, and a load of mischievous marmosets, lead by King Mauro (voiced by Brian Baumgartner) and his brother Doc Mauro (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris) in pursuit, they are forced to find help if they have any hope of escaping, Blu back to his owner and Jewel to the freedom of the sky above. 

Such help is found in the form of wise toucan Rafael (voiced by George Lopez) whose knowledge of Rio and those who live there proves invaluable, party birds Nico (voiced by Jamie Foxx) and Pedro (voiced by Will i Am) who tutor Blu in the ways of love, and dribbling bulldog Luiz (voiced by Tracy Morgan) who might just hold the key to breaking the chain that is keeping Blu and Jewel tied together. With a whole load of new and wonderful friends and Linda and Tulio on their trail, however, when the time comes will Blu and Jewel really want to be apart from one another? If only Blu could learn to fly perhaps he and Jewel might have a chance at being together after all...

As animation studios go, Blue Sky has never really been one to try new things or mess with the formula that has already been proven to work. While being good films, the two ‘Ice Age’ sequels essentially retreaded the same ice covered ground as the first film and, despite differing from Blue Sky’s previous films slightly by being a far more musical film than those that have come before it, Rio isn’t a whole lot different. Much like Blue Sky’s other films it doesn’t break any new ground, the film not exactly delivering an abundance of substance to go with the style that is undeniably on display and the story here being very predictable, so much so that is won’t surprise anyone above a certain age. Blue Sky also delivers their usual high standard of cute and colourful animation but once doesn’t push any boundaries or try anything new with it and the animation style is very similar to that of other films that they have made. 

That said, though, the colourful world of Rio de Janeiro and its signature celebration Carnival, which is a pretty major presence in this film, makes somewhat better use of their personal animation style than many of their other films have. A delightfully exotic setting, Rio de Janeiro is a perfect location to capture in animation, the bright colours and beautiful surroundings that make up the place giving director Carlos Saldanha a lot of stuff to beautifully render in the medium of animation. With a significant portion of his life having been spent living there, Carlos Saldanha is the perfect filmmaker to bring Rio de Janeiro to the big screen and he does a superb job of it, not only capturing the beautiful look of Rio in some stunning animation work but capturing the lively and energetic essence of the city in scenes depicting Carnival – which themselves are spectacularly animated, every little detail of the parade and the celebrations being superbly translated onto the screen. All the animated settings look really beautiful and the design is extremely cute and charming, not only in terms of capturing the city but also the surrounding rainforest and the many animals that feature throughout the film. 

A whole menagerie of exotic birds and animals feature here and each is about as cute as the last – except for ones that aren’t supposed to be cute that is! The marmosets, in particular, are hilarious and mischievous characters, filling the obligatory role of the animals that are up to no good. The standard of the animation on display may not exactly push the boundaries then but by bringing the stunning location of Rio de Janeiro to the big screen it could be said that the film does offer something you won’t have seen before. The 3D here isn’t incredibly pronounced for the most part, not being the most in your face example of three dimensional film making, but it nonetheless creates a rich depth of field, one that puts Rio de Janeiro and the rainforests right in front of your eyes and the extra dimension helps to breathe extra life into the already very lively, vibrant and colourful setting of Rio de Janeiro. In the Carnival scenes, it makes it feel almost like you are right there in the middle of the parade for real and with confetti falling all around the experience is incredibly life like, even with the animation going the cartoony route than taking the photorealistic approach. 

Subtle 3D touched such as flower petals floating around really highlight the depth of the field but the extra dimension perhaps impressed the most in some of its less subtle applications here. The 3D creates an impressive sense of height in some scenes, so much so that in scenes where the characters are falling through the air it almost feels like we are falling with them, and this sense of height proves particularly noteworthy in an amazing hand-gliding scene and scenes of flying which really are quite wonderful in three dimensions. There are a number of very exciting 3D sequences and, while popping out of the screen 3D isn’t something this film does much of, in one shot Blu and Jewel pop right out of the screen at us.

As well as providing scenes that are quite exciting, the film also frequently proves to be funny, only occasionally being laugh out loud funny but providing enough laughs to keep both the kids and accompanying adults amused for the most part, particularly good examples being a scene featuring a bird on marmoset battle royale and another one involving a power saw as Blu and Jewel try to cut off the chain that is keeping them stuck together. The film also delivers well in its musical aspects. Opening with a fun and catchy musical number and not letting up with lots of fun and lively musical numbers featuring throughout the film, most of which embrace a distinctly Latin American style of music, the music, lyrics and vocal performances that feature are all very good and the soundtrack is effortlessly cool, lively and catchy. 

The vocals are also good with regard to the cast members. Jesse Eisenberg brings an appropriately geeky quality to the vocals of Blu while Anne Hathaway lends a sophisticated feel to the vocals of Jewel and, while they obviously don’t actually act against each other, they nonetheless share a very sweet and charming chemistry on screen, the awkwardness in one scene as their characters try to express their feelings for one another proving very believable – something which is essential for the film to work, the film actually providing two love stories for the price of one, that of Blu and Jewel and also Linda and Tulio, the two love stories allowing for Lionel Richie’s Say You, Say Me to make a couple of appearances on the soundtrack in the process. As for the other major players, George Lopez sounds sufficiently wise as Raphael, Jamie Foxx and Will i Am’s vocals are perfect for the role of lively party birds Nico and Pedro, Tracy Morgan is very funny as Luiz and Jemaine Clement delivers the perfect balance of menace and silliness as Nigel. 

Leslie Mann and Rodrigo Santoro also deliver good performances but with the film really belonging to the animal characters and them voicing humans they don’t get so much opportunity to stand out. Also lending their voices to characters are such recognisable voices as Wanda Sykes, Jane Lynch, Thomas F. Wilson and Judah Friedlander. So, as a whole, Rio doesn’t mess with the status quo that Blue Sky Studios has established in their features to date but its colourful animation and spectacular use of 3D in some scenes makes for a film that is a real feast for the eyes and its fun musical numbers, silly sense of humour and general liveliness ensure that it is a film that will be loved by children and certainly won’t bore older viewers. A generally fun experience then that makes this a film definitely worth taking your kids to over this Easter holiday or, if you don’t have kids, just going to see on you own.


Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)

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