The latest animated feature from Blue Sky Studios is like a Disney film circa OLIVER AND COMPANY. It's safe entertainment that skews for the younger crowd. And there isn't anything wrong with making a film for a specific audience. I certainly don't miss the crass pandering to the older viewers. It's replaced with the joy of love and song.
The story follows a blue macaw who ends up in Minnesota. He is adopted by Linda (Leslie Mann, KNOCKED UP), who names him Blu (Jesse Eisenberg, THE SOCIAL NETWORK). They live a comfortable, conservative life running a small bookstore. But they are challenged one day to step out of their comfort zone when Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro, 300) shows up and informs them that Blu is the last male of his species. The Brazilian scientist wants to try and mate Blu with the last female blue macaw named Jewel (Anne Hathaway, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED).
Blu doesn't mind being in a safe cage, but Jewel wants out. But they way they get out is by being stolen by Fernando (Jake T. Austin, HOTEL FOR DOGS), a young orphan living on the street. He sells the birds to poachers, who have a maniacal cannibalistic bird named Nigel (Jermaine Clement, TV's FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS) as their henchman. Feeling bad for what he did, Fernando teams with Linda and Tulio to find the macaws. Meanwhile, Blu, who can't fly, and Jewel get some assistance from toucan Rafael (George Lopez, TV's THE GEORGE LOPEZ SHOW) and two Carnivale obsessed birds named Nico (Jamie Foxx, RAY) and Pedro (Will i Am, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE).
The opposites attract love story, the gags, the songs, they seem very familiar. No cliche about Rio de Janerio is left out. But director Carlos Saldanha brings an energy to the material that makes it seem fresher. The bright colors and fanfare of Carnivale seem perfectly suited for an animated film about birds. Adults will be less amused with jokes like three monkeys shoeing us what they do not see (come one that gag died with the original PLANET OF THE APES), but the younger kids will love it.
One of the key elements to making this safe, well-worn material seem livelier is the perfectly cast voices. Eisenberg has made a career out of playing neurotics, but he seems to blend into the role of a bird with flight anxiety naturally. He doesn't overplay the part, making him a Woody Allen with feathers character, but brings in an innocent naïveté that works. Hathaway's natural charm shines through as the no-nonsense Jewel. Like Eisenberg, she doesn't smell the scenery and think it's bird seed to chew. Clement is just wonderful as the evil cockatoo, who was once a TV star and gets the best song in the film. Speaking of songs, Foxx and Will i Am make for a nice singing duo.
OLIVER AND COMPANY was Disney's first glimmer of hope out of a dark period of films. One could say that RIO is the same, stepping out from the shadow of the ICE AGE sequels, as the first original film Blue Sky has done since the original ICE AGE. This film doesn't match their first success in originality, but it does prove they don't need Dr. Seuss or Bill Joyce or Scrat to tell an entertaining story. They can fly on their own and it gives one hope they can soar in the future.