Perhaps to grown-ups the prospect of telling a "learning to fly" story using the last of a species of rare birds may seem a bit too precious for its own good; thankfully for the little ones, director Carlos Saldanha has found a way to make it work. With memorable characters, a menacing villain, and exotic, colorful locales, Rio has all the ingredients of a thrilling adventure capable of entertaining even the most anxious of young viewers. And though a slight overreliance on show-stopping tunes occasionally threatens to clip Rio's wings, the songs are fun enough -- and the laughs big enough -- to keep this delightful little tale airborne.
Domesticated from the day his doting owner, Linda (Leslie Mann), found him in a box on the street, misfit macaw Blu (voice of Jesse Eisenberg) traded a life in the clouds for a contented existence in Moose Lake, MN. However, upon receiving word that a female macaw named Jewel (Anne Hathaway) has been discovered in Rio de Janeiro, Linda and Blu set out for South America on a mission to replenish the species. Shortly after their arrival in the Brazilian capital, though, the two rare birds fall victim to a gang of greedy animal smugglers intent on making a mint by selling Blu and Jewel to the highest bidder. But the headstrong Jewel isn't about to be locked in a cage and put on display, so when the opportunity arises she stages a daring escape with the help of some wisecracking local birds, taking her new friend Blu along for the ride. With the bumbling birdnappers and their ruthless cockatoo, Nigel (voice of Jemaine Clement), closing in fast, Blu realizes that his only hope for making a clean getaway and reuniting with Linda is to finally summon the courage he needs to take flight.
Rio aims primarily to entertain, and although it may seem slight in many respects, parents would be hard-pressed to find a young viewer who claims that it doesn't accomplish this goal with energy to spare. There certainly are positive subtexts about developing courage and forming makeshift families should we suddenly find ourselves alone in the world, but at its core, Rio is essentially a sun-soaked chase film. With a filmography that includes director credits on the Ice Age films and Robots, Saldanha definitely has enough animation experience to inject this high-energy romp with a solid sense of style, and together with screenwriting partners Don Rhymer, Joshua Sternin, Jeffrey Ventimilia, and Sam Harper, he fills Rio with the kind of colorful characters who easily draw the viewer in. Later, when the filmmakers drop those characters into perilous situations, we can't help but cheer for them during dazzling set pieces like a manic chase through the streets of Rio and the climactic pursuit through a kaleidoscopic Carnival parade. As quick as Saldanha is to show us the beautiful side of Brazil, however, he doesn't exactly shy way from the bleakness of the favelas, and by focusing a subplot on the experiences of a good-hearted slum kid named Fernando, the writing partners find a unique means of giving Blu's adventure some human relevance.
Voice work is commendable all around, with Jamie Foxx, will.i.am, and Tracy Morgan all getting big laughs as supporting characters, but it's Clement who steals the show as the sadistic Nigel -- a cockatoo that no bird (nor monkey or human, for that matter) would care to encounter in a dark Brazilian alley. Baleful as he may be, though, Rio still maintains enough effervescent ebullience to keep the more uplifting elements of the story the primary focus, resulting in a movie that's sure to soar in the eyes of its young target audience.