Rio | Carlos Saldanha, 2011
Recently, I had the chance to see the latest movie from Studio Ghibli, Arrietty. It is a very simple coming-of-age story that revolves around the friendship of a “Borrower” (or a very little person) and a human child. Yet, it is told in such a mature, yet imaginative manner that you forget that you are watching drawings. It was almost a perfect movie. And then I watch Rio, the latest from the studio that brought us the Ice Age saga. Going from the Ghibli film to the Blue Sky film helped me confirm something I had been thinking about for a while: with the exception of non-Cars Pixar, post-Chicken Little Disney, and a few great films from another studio every once in a while (How to Train Your Dragon, Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox), modern American animation is in the gutter. And Rio for the most part is a prime example for this.
Rio is about a blue macaw named Blu (Jesse Eisenberg). When he was little he was taken from the exotic rainforests of Brazil and shipped to Minnesota. There, he is raised by Linda (Leslie Mann). They are the greatest of friends and it would be unlikely that something would separate them. But one day Dr. Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) arrives from Rio De Janeiro to tell Linda that Blu may be the last male of his kind and that he is needed to save his species from extinction Once they get there, Blu finds that he doesn’t care for Jewel(Anne Hathaway), the other macaw he is supposed to breed with. But then one night, some poachers that want to sell them to the highest bidder take them from the lab where they were staying. And so, they must try to escape to get back to their normal lives.
At the core of this movie, there is a story worth telling. It is a story about love, understanding each other despite being from different places, and about the importance of keeping animals safe. But this doesn’t come across until the third act, during the climax of the movie. The other two thirds are filled with what I believe is wrong with American animation today, starting with the animation its self.
With CG animation it is very hard for me to be impressed. Most of the time, movies do manage to impress me, whether it is the cinematography of How to Train Your Dragon and WALL-E, the sophisticated look of Ratatouille, or even the flashiness of Cars 2. But here, the animation left too much to be desired. The CG is not necessarily bad, but the looks just didn’t wow me. The characters, even the birds, look like they are made of plastic. The same can be said about the jungle, and even the houses and stuff like that. They didn’t even try to style the designs like Up so that despite their oddness, things felt realistic. And speaking of the character design, I swear to God that every obese person in the movie had the same facial features. Way too distracting.
And then there is the thing that bothered me the most, that also bothers me in most American animations: the pop culture references and the attempts to make kids connect with the characters by making them cool and modern. I mean, this is supposed to be the director’s love song to his native country and its culture. So, why do Jamie Foxx and will.i.am voice two African-American stereotypes in this? What is with them singing hip-hop at the most inappropriate times? Is it funny trying to get birds in the mood for love by hanging a disco ball by them and playing Lionel Richie? Are break-dancing monkeys that steal your things funny? (In a live-action movie they would totally be, but her it just reeks of desperation). These things are not very funny, and they will make the movie age faster that it should. These are just a few of my problems with the humor of the movie. It would take me a long time to write every problem I had with the script.
But with that said, there are a few good things about it. For starters, I already mentioned that the third action is great. Here, the movie has finally found some emotion and they use it perfectly for a great set piece. Also, the music is mostly good, that is the sound track, not John Powell’s by the numbers score. Some of the performances are fine, especially Eisenberg, Mann, Hathaway, and Jemain Clement as an evil cockatoo that is hunting the blue macaws for the poachers. In fact, he provides the best moments of the movie with a musical number that seems to be right off of “The Flight of the Conchords.” I loved this scene mostly because I pictured Jemain from the show performing it with Brett somewhere in the background. I was the only one in the theater that laughed during that scene.
But these things are not enough to make a good movie. They helped, but they are not enough to redeem the first two thirds. I will, however, give the movie a slight pass because I did have fun during this last part and I bet children think it is the greatest thing. But I still hold out hope that American animation companies other than Pixar start making films for everyone, and even for the older members of the family. If things continue this way, animation will never be taken seriously.