by Callum Petch
24 hours before seeing Rio 2, I pushed play on Rio. I figured that I should probably do my research before I went to go and see the new one and be a good film critic and all (one who, this weekend, has entered his fifth year of attempting to do this thing, woop woop). Despite major trepidation on my part going on, it turned out to be pretty good. It was often funny, had pretty great animation as long as no humans were heavily involved, some good songs, a great villain in the form of the Jemaine Clement-voiced Nigel and was, overall, pretty entertaining. It also had a very formulaic and by-the-numbers plot, an unconvincing relationship between its two main characters, some dire voice acting from at least half of the cast and an air of disposability to proceedings. Rio touched greatness enough for me to be disappointed and slightly annoyed that it never fully grasped it but, I must admit, it gave me a tonne of hope for Rio 2.
If I had seen Rio at the time it came out and written a review of it (and if my work from 2011 didn’t cause me to crawl into my skin and die every time I re-read it), I would likely have simply copy-pasted that review here, futzed around with some of the particulars and simply left this review at that. Quite literally, bar two key new criticisms, this is the exact same way I felt once the credits rolled on the original Rio. It’s not the same movie, but it has the exact same feel and the exact same things going for it and the exact same things working against it and it has been three years since the original you’d think they would have at least tried to fix those issues with the first one!
Here would be where I describe the plot to Rio 2 except that I’m still not entirely certain what the overall plot is. Outside of Blu (Jesse Eisenberg, still surprisingly adept in the role) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway, still surprisingly underserved in the role) taking their children to the Amazon once their owners Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro, still really not very good in the role) and Linda (Leslie Mann, still all over the place in the role) discover a tribe of other Blue Spix’s Macaws, meaning that Blu’s family aren’t the only ones anymore, it’s a free-for-all. Compared to Rio’s laser-sharp focus in plotting, although it was overstuffed in regards to characters it kept its plotlines down to two and both were related to each other, Rio 2 seems content to act as a feature-length version of one of those Simpsons episodes where the characters travel to far off places and stuff happens to them.
Naturally, this leads to a lack of focus, generic-ness in regards to the majority of the scenarios and certain plots being better than others. Best of the lot involves the return of Nigel, now rendered flightless after the end of the first film and currently stuck in the Amazon as a street performer, whose passion for vengeance is reignited when he spots Blu and sets out to deliver it with the help of a dumb aardvark and a hopelessly infatuated poisonous frog named Gabbie (an excellent Kristin Chenoweth). These play a lot like Ralph Wolf trying to catch himself a sheep, to begin with, but then Nigel keeps inadvertently wandering into other plots which switches up the formula and keeps it from getting stale. He’s also, sadly, not in it enough which is damn shame as, especially, his scenes with Gabbie are comic gold, primarily because Clement and Chenoweth are that great in their roles.
The most main of the main plots involves Blu trying to fit in with the tribe, led by Jewel’s long lost father Eduardo (Andy Garcia). This goes almost exactly as you’re expecting: Blu, a domesticated city-bird at heart, doesn’t acclimatise well to his new surroundings, Eduardo stops short of all but derisively shouting “CITY BOY!!” at him, his attempts to fit in screw things up for the tribe, Jewel shames his legitimate inability to fit in by all but going “it’s not this place’s fault, you’re just the selfish arsehole!” (which is a route I would very much like kids’ films, actually just all films in general, to stop going down for reasons that are too lengthy and off-topic to properly address here) until an outside threat causes Blu to step up and prove himself worthy of the tribe’s respect. It couldn’t be more by-the-numbers if it tried but there are at least some good jokes here and a very fun football setpiece at the 2/3 mark, plus the final setpiece, which clumsily tries to link all of the other plots together, is very exciting.
As a subplot of that main plot, Blu also has to contend with feelings of inadequacy when Jewel is reunited with her childhood sweetheart Roberto (Bruno Mars; yes, really) and the strain on his relationship with Jewel caused by her homecoming and burgeoning desire to never leave again. I will commend the film, by the way, for not making Roberto and Blu battle for Jewel’s affection. Instead, Roberto completely respects the relationship that Blu and Jewel have and never once tries to make a pass at her. It felt good to see the film sidestep such an obvious relationship roadblock, one designed purely for drama’s sake. That goodwill is, of course, mostly evaporated by making Blu the unreasonable one in him and Jewel’s “should we or should we not stay in the Amazon” arguments despite having the more sympathetic viewpoint and mining that for drama’s sake, although it stops short of having the two break-up for five minutes. Instead, Jewel shames him and then Blu seems ready to reluctantly make things work. So… baby steps? It’s too formulaic for me to get worked up over.
We’re still not done, though, as another subplot involves the returning will.i.am, Jamie Foxx and George Lopez as Black Comic Relief, Slightly Less Black Comic Relief and George Lopez, respectively. They’ve followed the Blu family over to the Amazon in order to scout out talent for Rio’s upcoming Carnival but are really only here to make some very easy gags (or, in the case of Black Comic Relief, saying a bunch of random and often not funny words and sentences in a self-consciously wacky way in a vain attempt to make them funny) and to provide an excuse for the film having a couple more musical numbers. On the subject of those, they’re fine if forgettable. The best of them are Poisonous Love, which is at once hilarious and surprisingly poignant near the end (mostly because Chenoweth absolutely slays the Broadway-style number), and a parody of I Will Survive that retrofits certain lyrics to Nigel’s situation and throws in rap sections, dubstep breakdowns and pointless, lampshaded auto-tune in a very self-aware effort to be as stupid as possible. The rest blend into one another, but at least there’s nothing on the “oh gods, make it stop” level of the various will.i.am numbers from the last film.
Finally, we have the adventures of Tulio and Linda as they attempt to pinpoint the exact location of the tribe of Blue Sphix’s Macaws and end up running afoul of, and I kid you not here, an illegal logging operation run by a thin, non-moustached Burt Reynolds lookalike who genuinely and frequently refers to the pair as “good-for-nothing tree-huggers”. These guys are unrepentantly evil and the film plays every scene involving them as straight and dark as possible which is the worst possible thing it could have done. Look, I get that Rio 2 wants to get its environmentalism message out there to the younger generation and good on it, it has every right to and should be doing, but it also leads to major tonal whiplash as we cut from Blu’s goof-ups at trying to win Eduardo’s approval to scenes of Linda being hunted through the forest by people who, and it’s all but explicitly stated, want to kill her. And the film rarely comes back to this plotline, as if even it realises how misguided and out-of-place it is but ended up building its climactic final setpiece around it and, therefore, can’t just jettison it. It’s from a much different film and should either have been severely rewritten or just plain dropped.
Oh, and if you’re looking forward to spending some quality time with Blu and Jewel’s kids, prepare to be disappointed. They basically wander in and out of the film whenever they want. Although, considering the overly stuffed nature of the film’s 101 minutes, that’s probably a wise decision.
I’ve spent so long running down the quality of each of Rio 2’s various plotlines because it helps elongate a review that would otherwise have been me making the exact same criticisms and praises of the first film. The animation quality, for example, has both progressed greatly in the 3 years since Rio and, at the same time, seems to be stuck in 2011. The stuff that looked great in the first film, mainly any of the animals and especially nice wide crowd shots of anything at all, looks excellent here; there definitely seems to be more detail when it comes to the way that individual feathers look and move than before, for example. The stuff that didn’t look so good in the first film, namely the humans, still doesn’t look so good, only that “not good”-ness is now further enhanced by the great stuff looking fantastic. Specifically, human movement still sits at an uncomfortable halfway house between realistic and cartoony, which creates a very uncanny and distractingly fake result in anything except wide and distant crowd shots. Also, there’s still a suspicious-looking amount of Chroma Keying going on here (where the backgrounds and the characters are animated separately and then layered onto one another later in production), much like in the first film, and it’s very noticeable if you’re aware of the process.
Meanwhile, the voice cast pick up from where they left off in the first film. Jesse Eisenberg is still surprisingly great as Blu, although that might be because the role plays to his pre-Social Network strengths. Anne Hathaway still makes as much of an impression as her character does, which is little. Jemaine Clement again gives the best performance of the entire cast seeing as he puts in this little thing called “effort” that Andy Garcia couldn’t be bothered with; the only reason Garcia isn’t the film’s worst voice actor is because william and Tracy Morgan return from the first film. Kristin Chenoweth nails every single line and is clearly having a tonne of fun but the big surprise is, and I swear that I am being completely serious with you, Bruno Mars. As Roberto, he spends most of the film delivering his lines in a breathy, rather emotionless kind of manner, like he thinks he’s portraying the epitome of suave and “HAVE MY BABIES” when he really, really isn’t. Initially, I thought it was a bad performance. And then he gets a freak-out scene, and he nails it so spectacularly that it made me realise that his earlier work wasn’t unintentionally bad, it was so purposefully bad that I didn’t realise the intention until he showed off how good he is at material with energy! Give him a round of applause, he deserves it!
Rio 2, then, is a sequel to Rio that manages to be exactly as good as the original. It has the same strengths (Nigel, some good songs, great animal animation and a good successful/unsuccessful gag ratio) and weaknesses (clichéd nature, poor human animation, half of a voice cast that’s either untalented or not bothered, and little desire to innovate or stick out in anybody’s memory more than a few hours after having seen it) as Rio but with the added caveat of having had three years to fix those problems. I feel that Blue Sky could make a great Rio movie if they wanted to, but they instead seem content to settle for creating an above-average way to pass the time. And whilst I can’t deny that I had some good fun with Rio 2, I hope it’s an attitude the company moves away from fast. For if this same attitude gets applied to their upcoming Peanuts movie, then I and every other animation lover on the planet will be queuing up to burn their offices down.