Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
As an animation lover who eagerly awaits the likely-never-to-occur Blu-ray release of "The Three Caballeros" (that would be Disney's pre-psychedelic '40s homage to the Good Neighbor policy, in which Donald Duck learns all about South America), I was of course curious to see how a newfangled, computer-animated 3-D treatment of a United States-raised bird's trip to Brazil would turn out. Given the general tenor of computer-animated 3-D films, "Rio" (not a Disney production, but from Fox's Blue Sky Studio, which is responsible for "Ice Age" et. al.) could have been a lot worse, I admit. It's an intermittently charming (albeit, of course, almost entirely predictable) tale with some (and I do mean some) engaging voice work and many nifty if not staggeringly ingenious bits of action business. For this "Caballeros" man, it got by mostly on art direction.
But the kids will be taken with it, surely. The film begins with hero Blu, an appropriately blue macaw, and his human owner Linda (a typical potentially hot librarian type, except she runs a bookstore, same dif), who have a special bond except she can't understand him when he's speaking what the audience hears as English. Whatever, it's a cartoon. Into their domestic bliss in Minnesota comes Tulio, a bird expert from Brazil who informs Linda that Blu is the last male of his species. After a little friendly persuasion, he spirits the pair down to Brazil, specifically the gorgeously rendered Rio of the title, where Blu is paired with Jewel, a rather freer spirit than her would-be mate, who dreams only of escaping back into the rain forest. No sooner does the naïve Blu say "Of course you can trust humans" than the two are kidnapped and delivered into the hands of some thoroughly no-good and equally inept would-be bird smugglers, humans who are abetted by a nasty quisling cockatoo. And so the various escapes and chases are on, and if you can't figure out where and when the action is going to reach its climax when one of the characters exclaims, "But it's Carneval! All the roads are blocked by the parade!" well, you ought to enjoy all the surprises in store for you.
Such scenarios can't, however, just be about getting out of jams and getting the girl and all. There must be character growth, a disability to conquer so that the triumph of the, um, avian spirit can be fully realized. In this case -- can you guess? -- the big stumbling block is that Blu has been so thoroughly domesticated that he doesn't know how to fly, which means he has to walk around getting advice like, "When you feel the rhythm of your heart, it's samba! And you fly!" from a toucan voiced by George Lopez. Since Blu is voiced by Jesse Eisenberg, I was hoping he'd respond to that by saying, like, "You have part of my attention; the minimum amount," but Eisenberg's a pro and gives the role his best in fully cute-and-awkward mode. Anne Hathaway matches him in charm as Jewel, and Tracy Morgan redeems the concept of a bulldog who drools in too-close Dolby 3-D.
On the other hand, as one of the hip-hop-inflected birds, well, three I-guess-you-can-call-them-words: will.i.am. Ugh. As the participation of this individual attests, the filmmakers don't have all that much invested in the notion of bringing a whole lot of actual Brazilian culture to bear on the production, in spite of the fact that the director, Carlos Saldanha, was himself born in Rio. Rather paradoxically, given the richness of this particular aspect of Brazil's culture, the musical component of the film is its weakest link, exemplified, if you will, in a rap in which the above-mentioned villainous cockatoo proclaims, "I'm unwashable/Unrinseable/Like an abandoned school I have no principal."
So what's to like? Well, the story, while predictable, just bops along, and the whole thing really IS a pretty nice bit of eye candy. A lot of the backgrounds look like they were hand-painted, and the riots of color in scenes involving the overturning of dozens of beach umbrellas and hot pursuits featuring carnival floats are pretty dazzling. Not as crazily kitschily faux-surreal as the sights of "Three Caballeros," but we've known for a long time that they don't make 'em like that anymore, in any respect.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.