RIO – Blu-ray review

DVD Town’s Michael Hiscoe called it “not much more than a colorful distraction from reality,” but I beg to differ. “Rio” is the closest the 20th Century Fox animation crew has come to matching the look and feel of a Disney animated feature. Not that it’s been their goal, mind you, but they’ve certainly come up with the same eye-candy eye-popping visuals, the sweeping vista backdrops of setting that make it as important as the characters, a musical soundtrack that’s a Pixie-Stick rush, and a plot that has heroes you want to cheer and villains you happily boo. The minor characters are fun, too, and there’s plenty of mild comedy in this latest adventure from Carlos Saldanha (“Ice Age”).

Michael gave “Rio” a 5 out of 10, but I liked it even more than the Rotten Tomatoes critics, who collectively awarded it a 72 percent “fresh” rating. So did my family. Here’s how I’d break it down:

Animation and Artwork? Easily a 10. If there’s something more that Saldanha and designers Nash Dunnigan and Rachel Tiep-Daniels could have done to make this movie more eye-catching and Carnivalesque, I don’t know what it would be. The colors are bright and richly hued, and scene after scene is a marvel of artwork and animation. Most importantly, Rio de Janeiro comes vividly to life: the Carnival parade floats and costumes, the sun-and-skin Zona Sul beaches, the poor favelas, and, of course, the giant statue of Christ overlooking Guanabara Bay, which we see by day and also by night. The animation itself is fluid and so natural-looking that you have to remind yourself you’re watching CGI creatures instead of a real blue macaw waddling on the ground or using his beak to climb branches. Whether it’s high-concept action sequences or scenes that reveal behavioral patterns or personality traits, the animation is there to sustain the illusion of reality.

Music and soundtrack? An 8. Not all of the 14 songs are as successful in capturing the spirit of the moment, and one song seems derivative of a big production number we heard in “The Lion King.” But when the opening sequence shows the cutest, teensy-weensiest baby bird who can’t keep his stubby little tail from twitching in rhythm to the big production number involving birds of all species, you’re ready to believe that samba is a way of life in Rio. And I’m guessing that’s the way it is, since Saldanha was born in Rio. Certainly he involves a lot of people–including voice talents–in a songfest that combines samba songs with bossa nova numbers and others to which Saldanha adds a Latin flavor.

Voice acting? Probably another 8. Anne Hathaway was nominated for a Teen Choice Award for her work as the female macaw Jewel, but it’s Jesse Eisenberg as Blu who really makes you believe he’s got feathers. All the actors self-effacingly recede into the background so their voices come through as characters. I couldn’t pick out either Wanda Sykes or Jane Lynch as a pair of Canada geese that tease Blu when he’s behind the glass of his owner’s book store, and that’s to their credit. Even Tracy Morgan, who’s usually about as subtle as a nuclear explosion, dials it back a bit as the slobbery dog Luiz, so he’s more appropriately in the range of carnival fireworks.

Plot? Between a 6 and a 7, because there are so many familiar elements. Since the children’s book Ferdinand the Bull there have been countless fish-out-of-water stories in which the fish is out of water in water. Blu, whom we see captured by exotic animal poachers in the opening sequence, fortunately finds a good home with Linda (Leslie Mann), who bonds with him over a 15-year period. Their idyllic life together is routine and structured until one day an over-eager ornithologist named Túlio (Rodrigo Santoro) arrives from Brazil with the news that Blu is the last male of his species, and an unspecified “they” want Linda and Blu to come to Rio so Blu can mate with a female they’ve found (Jewel). That’s when the adventure begins, because once again Blu (and this time, Jewel, to whom he’s handcuffed) gets grabbed by black-market profiteers working in the illegal animal trade. And Blu is completely out of his element in Brazil, where he was born.

The film plays out as a typical two-pronged escape/rescue plot, with the escape complicated by the fact that Blu never learned to fly. Along the way, they meet Pedro (, a red-crested cardinal, and his canary sidekick Nico (Jamie Foxx), and get further help and (mis)direction from a toucan named Rafael (George Lopez) and Luiz.
Meanwhile, the villains are appropriately “soft” for a G-rated film. The two most nefarious are a black marketer named Marcel (Carlos Ponce) and his trained-to-steal-and-rough-you-up cockatoo, Nigel (Jemaine Clement), who’s not quite as menacing as the falcon from “Mullan.” And what would a villain be without a couple of bumbling underlings (Jeff Garcia and Davi Vieira) and a hapless guard (Bernardo de Paula) who may or may not be involved. Rounding out the cast is Jake T. Austin as Fernando, an orphan who feels bad about his role in the birdnapping. But with two “lovebird” side plots–one involving the humans and the other those blue birds of occasional happiness–added to the escape/rescue plot, the dramatic question of will Blu ever fly becomes more a when.

Characters? Also a 7, with all of them having enough individual personality to make them distinctive, and enough meat on their bones to make us care about them. The only misstep is a gaggle of marmosets that Nigel enlists to help him find the two blue macaws–something that pushes the film into “Madagascar” territory and changes the tone and overall feel. For the most part, though, “Rio” is a fun family film that scores extra points because it’s a G-rated movie that still manages a little edge. For that, credit a screenplay by Don Rhymer (“Surf’s Up”), Joshua Sternin (“That ‘70s Show”), Jeffrey Ventimilia (“That ‘70s Show”) and Sam Harper (“Open Season”) that’s smart as a macaw and steers clear of sentimentality and cheap laughs. Though there’s physical comedy as well as some funny lines, there’s only a bare minimum of fart and poop jokes. And heck, that too ought to be worth something.

On my calculator that adds up to an 8 out of 10 for this 96-minute film. In fairness, I’d say that if you don’t break it down and just go by gut feeling, “Rio” feels like a film that falls somewhere in the 7-8 range. It’s a fun family film that should appeal to all ages. You can get “Rio” on this 3-disc combo pack or separately on DVD and Digital Download. If you’re wanting it in 3D, as it was released in theaters, the 3D Blu-ray is currently available only at Best Buy and is reportedly slated for general release later this month.

Saldanha has got to be pleased with the way this looks on Blu-ray. It’s absolutely jaw-dropping. Everything is so lush and rich with color and full of texture and depth that you find yourself enjoying the look of the film so much you that you almost have to remind yourself to pay attention to the plot. The yellows, blues, and reds are bbursting with color. With a 2.40:1 canvas to paint on, the Fox animators really pay attention to detail and fill out all the space nicely. Some of the shots of the bay look so beautiful they could pass for postcards from the ‘50s. The humans are nicely rendered, but it’s the animals and scenery that really make “Rio” a visual treat. It comes to Blu-ray via an AVC/MPEG-4 encode, and looks pristine to me.

Though the featured audio is the industry-standard DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, it’s more dynamic than most tracks, with the filmmakers making full use of the effects speakers and squeezing every ounce of ambience out of scenes–whether it’s a motorbike tearing through the narrow streets or animals coursing through the jungle. The subwoofer is pretty busy, too, with deep bass tones anchoring a pleasing sonic field that feels as much a treat for the ears as the visuals are for the eyes. Optional audio tracks are English Descriptive, Spanish, and French Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.

I’ve never seen a long animated menu screen show PIP shots of some of the bonus features and ask viewers to watch them, but Saldanha and his crew do. Have a look, we’re urged. And while what’s here isn’t as exciting as the film itself, there are still a few worthwhile things. In this 3-disc “party pack” you get the DVD of the film and a Digital Copy in addition to the Blu-ray. Inside you’ll learn how download Angry Birds Rio (for PC, Mac, Tablets & Mobile Phones) with 15 all-new bonus levels, as well as a Rio coloring app for your little ones.

Of the disc features, the one that’s the most educational is “Explore the World of Rio,” a click-on map that provides an interactive tour. But if you liked the music and want to learn more, “Boom-Boom, Tish-Tish: The Sounds of Rio” (14 min.) is also pretty informative. The longest extra is the interview/clip feature “Saving the Species: One Voice at a Time,” which zeroes in on the voice talents. I’ve always marveled at how animated these folks get in a room by themselves with a microphone. Now that’s acting. “The Making of Hot Wings” (8 min.) follows and Foxx into the recording studio, while “The Real Rio” (10 min.) gives you a sense of how important this film was to Saldanha as we watch him touring the area with his crew. Rounding out the bonus features are two music videos (“Welcome to Rio,” “Telling the World”) and a Rio de Jam-eiro Jukebox that allows you to select just the musical numbers from the film. There’s also a deleted scene shot with storyboards, a “Postcards from Rio” activity that allows you to create your own postcards, the original trailer, an Angry Birds trailer, a Nigel Mashup, and an Exclusive Clue Video for Angry Birds. All of the bonus features are in High Definition, and there’s BD-Live content as well, for those who care.

Bottom Line:
To each his own, but I’m betting that families will get a lot of enjoyment out of this film. It seems like a contender for repeat play. “Rio” is bright and chippy as a roomful of parrots, and the best thing Saldanha has done since the first Ice Age.