These days, the potential for animated films is seemingly limitless. In the past few months, we’ve seen Disney‘s boldly contemporary fairy tale “Frozen” deservedly become the highest grossing animated movie of all time, while Hayao Miyazaki was able to delicately frame the story of a man who made war machines as a love letter to artistic pursuit with “The Wind Rises,” and “The Lego Movie” transcended its commercial base to become a dazzlingly funny and heartfelt movie about the true power of imagination. So it’s such a shame, then, that a movie like Blue Sky Studios‘ “Rio 2” comes along – a visually stunning, wholly empty experience that fails to conjure any emotion stronger than an impassive shrug.
“Rio 2” picks up where 2011’s similarly unimpressive predecessor left off. Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway), a pair of ultra-rare Spix macaw parrots, are living comfortably in a sanctuary in Rio de Janeiro, under the watchful eye of Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) and Linda (Leslie Mann), their human owners. They now have three baby parrots (Amandla Stenberg, Pierce Gagnon and Rachel Crow), all of who are obnoxious and hard to differentiate. Tulio and Linda are away on an expedition in the Amazon when they notice another Spix macaw. It turns out they do exist in the wild! When Blu and Jewel see a television news report with Tulio and Linda, Jewel urges her nebbish bird husband to pack up the kids and go down to the rainforest in search of their fellow rare parrots.
Now, while it was probably a good idea to get the parrots back into the wild, the idea of a new colony of parrots being discovered totally takes away any of the tension or dramatic stakes of the first movie. The idea was that this family was the last of this particular breed of birds. Now there are countless birds. The other thing is that other characters from the first movie, including a couple of smaller birds played by Jamie Foxx and will.i.am, accompany them on their journey for no apparent reason. When these two characters, who look like they are better suited for an “Angry Birds” movie, announce their intention to tag along with the family, it took a lot of willpower for us to not yell “WHY???” at the screen.
Kids movies obviously don’t have to make a whole lot of sense, but what “Rio 2” fails to understand is that animated films can be way more streamlined than normal fare – it’s all about making the narrative as tidy as possible, so that it can be told in bold visual strokes. Maybe it was because of the South American jungle setting, but the entire time we were watching “Rio 2,” all we could think about was “Up,” and that movie’s superior simplicity. It was about a man who ties a bunch of balloons to his house and soars away to the South American jungle — and that was pretty much it. Characters and situations grew organically, sometimes bizarrely, from that foundation, but that was the basic premise of the movie and it was a premise that was followed through on, spectacularly and in unexpectedly emotional ways.
Instead, “Rio 2” piles on the subplots and unnecessary characters and busy set pieces, until the whole thing creaks and groans and eventually falls apart. Amongst the subplots that get trotted out for no apparent reason: the return of the supposedly dead villain from the first film, Nigel the cockatoo (Jermaine Clement), who teams up with a poison dart frog (Kristin Chenoweth) and a silent anteater to exact his revenge on the parrots who did him wrong; Jewel reconnecting with her father (Andy Garcia) and ex-flame (Bruno Mars); the birds looking to “cast” jungle animals in a new Amazon-inspired stage show (or something); and maybe most baffling of all, a storyline where an evil logging baron plots to kill the two human characters for exposing the parrot sanctuary and throwing his illegal logging operation into jeopardy. Just recounting all of these different, ill-fitting parts is enough to make you exhausted.
It’s not that “Rio 2” is uniformly horrible, because there are some fine moments, usually having to do with the movie’s visuals that are genuinely wonderful. In the birds’ flight to the Amazon is portrayed in a trippy, 2D pop-up book style that serves as more than a passing homage to Disney’s “it’s a small world” ride, and the characters themselves (especially the newly introduced ones), have a charming simplicity, looking like a Build-a-Bear character with too much stuffing. There’s also a couple of rousing dance numbers that play like midair Busby Berkley productions and a pseudo-soccer game that is like a bird-world version of Quiddich.
Politically, though, the movie is even more problematic. A few months after the message of female empowerment in “Frozen,” the attitude of the male characters in “Rio 2” towards their female counterparts is summed up by the phrase, “Happy wife, happy life.” It would be bad enough if this condescending platitude was uttered once but it is said so many times that it becomes the movie’s de facto mantra. (The thought of little kids repeating this after the movie is positively stomach churning.) Even worse is the movie’s dangerous environmental message. When the loggers attempt to destroy a large portion of the rainforest in the movie’s last act, the animals rise up, “Apocalypto“-style and beat them back. Except that the movie doesn’t offer any kind of real world solution or tips for how to actually affect change. The animals beat back the humans and then that’s it. The rainforest is safe forever. But that’s not how this works. And like much of “Rio 2,” it seems to be a moment staged for the visual spark of it all and not much more. You get the sense that “Rio 2” wasn’t thought through as much as it was quickly cobbled together as it went along, with a simple, clearheaded goal in mind: just make it good enough to warrant a “Rio 3.” [C-]