The year is only about a quarter over so by my calculation it must be time for the thirty or fortieth computer animated film to come out. Animated films, even CGI variants, used to be few and far between because of the cost and time involved. They're still expensive and still time consuming but they're also big business, especially in the 3D era. So now we get, and I'm estimating conservatively, approximately three kajillion a year.
Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. If you make 1000 pots you're more likely to come up with a great one than if you make just 10, the weight of probability is on your side. In any artistic endeavor you're going to have a small percentage of terrible work, a small percentage of great work and a pretty hefty percentage of middle of the road work. And if we get an animated film a week we should get more than a few good ones each year.
So where does "Rio" fall?
Somewhere in the middle. A little behind the ball from Pixar and even DreamWorks, the fine folks at Fox's Blue Sky Studios have had a decade now of producing their own animated attempts – mostly through iterations of "Ice Age" – and while their output has been uneven they are definitely getting better at it. They still haven't been able to make it through that glass ceiling to true greatness, but they're getting consistent at moderately entertaining.
Set in an exquisitely rendered version of the actual Rio de Janeiro, "Rio" the film is focused on Blu (Jesse Eisenberg), the only remaining male Blue Macaw who has spent most of his life in cozy Moose Lake, Minnesota – as you do when you're a tropical parrot – until his life is upended by the visit of an overly enthusiastic ornithologist (Rodrigo Santoro) who wants to try and breed Blu with the only remaining female Blue Macaw in the world (Anne Hathaway). Before you know it, Blu and his owner (Leslie Mann) have been whisked across the equator to Rio so Blu can find his roots.
It's a pretty typical fish, er, parrot, out of water story as Blu has to adjust from his world as a pet, with all of his needs taken care of, to the dog eat dog world (aw screw it, I'm just mixing metaphors from here on) of nature after Blu and Jewel are kidnapped by an amoral smuggler (Carlos Ponce) trying to sell the rare birds on the parrot black market.
Forced to work together, Blu and Jewel escape and soon hook up with a gang of vagabond birds flapping around Rio as they try putting distance between themselves and their kidnappers, a problem exacerbated because pampered Blu has never learned to fly.
Director Carlos Saldanha ("Robots," "Ice Age: The Meltdown") has been wanting to make this film for years and it shows in the care and heart he's put it into it. It doesn't really trod new ground so much as travel along well worn ruts in the road with little deviation, but it does with a bright glittery float worthy of Carnival and enough to help you forgive its lowered expectations.
It's helped a long a great deal by its performances, particularly lead Eisenberg who's voice perfectly encapsulates Blu's sullen nerdiness and the war between the desire to be home and the wish to fly like a bird warring within him. The various supporting characters are somewhat overdone—sometimes in a good way like Tracy Morgan's semi-psychotic bulldog, and sometimes in a not so good way—but nothing to ruin the moments. The only cast member who really overshadows Eisenberg is Jemaine Clement's ("Flight of the Concords") villainous cockatoo.
It's also extremely well animated, with choice visual gags and decent acting that never devolves into some of the over-reach less polished products fall prey to.
In fact the only place where it really stumbles is the songs, which range from forgettable to downright awful. Only one number between Foxx and Will.I.Am works the way it's supposed to; the rest have a tendency to stop the film dead, and not in a good way.
But as criticism go, that's not enough to hurt "Rio" in the end. It's only real downfall is its lack of ambition to be more than decent. For all of the care he's put into it, Saldanha has also been unerringly safe in most of his story telling choices, with little unexpected character development and quite a bit of overly tidy moralizing.
There's still more to like about it than not; it's charming and its heart is in the right place. There's probably not much to worry about come Oscar time, but for a weekend with the kids it's not bad.