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I don’t know if it’s the movies that have changed, or it’s me, but with a handful of exceptions, animated offerings seem to have gotten progressively worse over the past few years. Where Pixar’s reign came to an unceremonious end and Dreamworks’ pop-savvy style quickly grew stale, their competition – studios like Illumination and Blue Sky — feverishly tried to emulate their more successful efforts, with diminishing returns. And Rio 2, Blue Sky’s latest, feels like a pipeline of cash funneled into computers with the hopes of earning more cash, as opposed to a film, sure, even a sequel, inspired by anything as highfalutin’ as a real or good idea.
A shamelessly uninspired follow-up to the 2011 hit movie, Carlos Saldanha’s latest is just plain tedious – a boring, overly familiar pastiche of sitcom problems, acted out by annoying animals, and scored with music that should make it all feel invigorating, not infuriating.
Jesse Eisenberg reprises his role as Blu, the macaw who won the heart of Jewel (Anne Hathaway), the last remaining female of his species, and now lives in domestic bliss with their three children. Dismayed over her family’s acclimation to the creature comforts of humankind, Jewel suggests that they take a vacation to the Amazon, where Blu’s owner Linda (Leslie Mann) and her husband Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) claim to have found evidence of other macaws. Strapping on a fanny pack and clutching his GPS, Blu leads them towards their caretakers, only to discover a community of macaws – including Jewel’s father Eduardo (Andy Garcia) — who have successfully hidden themselves from the human world.
Pressured to meet the expectations of his disapproving father in law, Blu struggles to overcome his privileged upbringing, even as Jewel and their kids settle into the macaw community easily. But when the twin threats of an evil industrialist (Miguel Ferrer) and an old adversary (Jemaine Clement) encroach on his new life, Blu is forced to decide between the cushy world of his human owner or the untamed wild the lurks beneath his fussy exterior.
Opening with a giant dance number that serves no purpose other than to mimic the beginning of the first film, Rio 2 tries to flesh out its feeble story with a glut of Brazilian music – which might be a good thing if almost all of it weren’t produced by Will.i.am. The former Black Eyed Peas frontman collaborates once again with Sergio Mendes to mash up bossa nova, r&b and hip-hop into a frothy confection, producing a backdrop for the action that’s full of empty calories, and even sadder, utterly bland taste. Schizophrenically throwing in showtunes (“Memories”), hardcore hip-hop verses and beats (“Look At Me Now,” “Tell Me When To Go”) and disco anthems (“I Will Survive”), the soundtrack feels like a willful distraction from the fact that there’s nothing going on in front of it other than hackneyed plot points.
The dynamic between Blu and Eduardo feels like a bird-brianed spin on Meet the Parents, but even those three terrible films didn’t spell out the conflict as nakedly as writers Saldanha and Don Rhymer do here, spoon-feeding the audience new ideas and developments exactly as one-dimensional as the characters acting them out. To Saldanha’s credit, Blu is more reasonable and resourceful than basically any of the other characters, but that’s not saying much in a film where his counterparts are provincial and threatened by literally anything that challenges their perception of the world.
Meanwhile, Linda is on the receiving end of abominable negligence and condescension by Tulio, who takes credit for their macaw discovery and otherwise pursues ornithology with the clear-eyed passion of Mr. Magoo. Precisely why the human lead in the first film is reduced to a supporting character – even among other humans – makes no sense, but the fact that it’s handled with such thoughtless sexism borders on the offensive. It would seem that no matter what role she plays in a film now, Mann is automatically relegated to the role of shrill spouse or support system for her male counterparts, and it’s sad to see an actress with so much talent wasted playing a character with so little to do.
The comic relief of the supporting (animal) character basically exists to pad the film out to feature length, and interject the clichéd story with an occasional jolt of energy. But the only character worth caring about other than Blu and his family is Gabi (Kristin Chenoweth), a poisonous tree frog who’s hopelessly infatuated with Clement’s scheming cockatoo, Nigel; where the other characters operate according to the demands of the plot, there’s genuine pathos beneath Gabi’s overwrought affections, especially given the fact that she’s unable to touch anyone without killing them.
That said, if you’re unaware that the deforestation of the Amazon is a big problem, and the displacement of indigenous species is a bad thing, then this film might resonate more strongly with you than it did with me. But animated films, or family films in general, shouldn’t serve as training-wheel versions of “adult” stories – they need to work on their own, and God forbid, exude a shred of creativity, if not originality. And Saldanha’s sequel feels like a self-indulgent, stockholder baiting product rather than an earnest (much less effective) next chapter in the lives of beloved characters. Ultimately, Rio 2 is just kind of insufferable – a mishmash of hackwork clichés, mindless comic relief and heavy-handed environmental messages that adds up to a ton of color smashing into a wall of sound, creating nothing but audiovisual noise.