Rio was a fairly tepid affair, considerably enlivened by the most delicious villain to grace CGI animation in its near-twenty-year feature history. And so it is withRio 2; Jermaine Clement’s Nigel makes every scene with his haughty cockatoo a delight and nearly balances out the over-famiar Meet the Parents storyline, in which Spix’s macaw Blu (Ben Stiller, I mean Jesse Eisenberg) reluctantly ventures into the Amazon jungle with mate Jewel (Anne Hathaway) and their fledgling brood seeking out others of their rare species.
The first Rio was a passion project for director Carlos Saldanha. It had been in development since 1995 (at which point the storyline involved penguins rather macaws; Happy Feet put paid to that idea) and by that time it reached cinema screens Saldanha had directed or co-directed all of Blue Sky Studios’ features. Unfortunately, as attractively mounted as Blue Sky’s animation is, they have consistently come up short in the story department. In contrast to Pixar’s painstakingly thrashed out characters and plots and DreamWorks pop culture & gags formula, Blue Sky stand out mostly for evoking a feeling that whatever it is you’re watching is derivative of something else.
The best element of the pedestrian Ice Age films is the Loony Tunes-inspired Scrat, and each one of those is less distinguishable from its processor. They were enormous hits globally (if not so dominant in the US), however; the critical kudos may not add up to much, but the third and fourth instalments are in the all-time Top 10 animated features. The Ice Age films basically are Blue Sky, and Fox’s animation claim to fame. Every studio can be expected to milk a franchise for all it’s worth (Ice Age 5 will arrive at some point) and, even if Rio could barely scrape together half the receipts of their prestige series, it was more than enough to guarantee a second outing (which grossed about equal with the first, so expect a third).
Blue Sky’s best picture is comfortably Horton Hears a Who! Then there’s last year’s Epic, which wasn’t wholly successful but at least tried something different. Despite being released by the merciless Murdoch corporation, both that and Rio 2 wear their environmentalist badges on their sleeves. The problem with the latter’s global conscience is that it gets drowned out by a glut of conflicting storylines that leaves threads half-baked or dangling. The picture is top-heavy with Blu’s difficult induction into his new family, giving short shrift to the illegal logging B-plot. This also means Nigel’s involvement is reduced to peripheral (but very funny) comic relief (you’ll struggle to remember the main villain).
And the Blu plot thread is devoid of inspiration. It provokes a response, just as the successive humiliations of Greg Focker do, but for a family movie there’s a curious lack of responsibility required for the actions of anyone but Blu himself. Jewel is indifferent to his doubts about living in the Amazon, pushing the onus on him in the most guilt trippy of ways (think of the children; “Happy wife, happy life” is the solution to a case of marital discord that rivals Gone Girl). There is no pay-off as such; he must simply adjust to the new situation, which he does so without comment once the main threat subsides. No one else needs make amends for their behaviour. His “father-in-law” Eduardo (Andy Garcia) is entirely dismissive and only comes around when Blu saves their habitat, while Roberto (Bruno Mars) is the Owen Wilson character; a childhood friend with designs on Jewel and intent on snatching her away; again, the device whereby Blu proves himself (Roberto turns to jelly in front of the marauding diggers) hardly offers recompense for his prior treatment.
Of course, in order for the underlying eco-theme to have any consistency Blu needs to opt for jungle life. Yet, as played out, the ruination of the rainforest flounders and lacks bite. There’s one great shot where Blu happens across the barren logging site and a pullback reveals his full perspective, but that’s about as far as it resonates. Blu leaves Rio missing the fumes and pollution (“Goodbye stinky city air” says Jewel, and Blu mournfully murmurs “Yeah… goodbye”). Just as Blu is horrified by the ways of the natural world (“She ate a bug. A bug!”), so Eduardo enforces a “no technology” rule.
It’s difficult for writers to stick to that, of course, so references to civilisation wash over the jungle idyll (Epic at least stuck true to its miniscule milieu). This includes the Brazilian full-on passion for football, tying in not so subtly with their host nation World Cup year, amusingly introduced as a turf war between Spix’s and Scarlet macaws (“It’s not a game. It’s war!”), monkeys spreading toilet paper through trees like this is one giant frat house prank and X Factor style auditions for the Rio Carnival hosted by Blu’s returning pals Rafael (George Lopez), Pedro (will.i.am) and Nico (Jamie Foxx). The latter sequence is hit-and-miss, and rather lazy filler truth be told. But it includes some amusing moments, including slow motion tortoises and a jaguar eating a small capybara that carries on singing from within (with a patient pay-off at the end of the movie). Actually, the more anarchic side of the picture is to be commended; a series of twisted sight gags involve small creatures and even humans being eaten (by piranhas, by crocodiles, by a snake). It doesn’t make the cute ickle macaws any more tolerable, but it’s something.
The opening section of the picture of Rio 2 is painfully plodding, and I feared the worst; it’s only when Nigel shows up with sidekick Gabi (Kristin Chenowith), a poison dart frog besotted with the malignant toucan, and Charlie the inept anteater that the screenplay (by Don Rhymer, Carlos Kotking, Jenny Bicks and Yonni Brenner) gets some wind under its sails. “We attack at the midnight hour – because it’s more evil” announces Nigel of his plan to take revenge on Blu. Clement’s performance (it’s very evident that he did extensive ad-libbing, because the quality of the laughs are a league above when Nigel’s involved) is hilarious; Nigel’s might be the most irresistible animated villainy since George Sanders’ lent silky, mocking tones to Shere Khan in The Jungle Book.
Nigel’s general demeanour reminds me a little of the late John Savident, or Robert Morley. While the Rio 2’s songs generally are a burden, anodyne yey celebratory musical numbers that bring the action to a halt, those involving Nigel are definite hits; a version of I Will Survive that includes nods to Flashdance and autotune, and Gabi’s romantic fantasy sequence in which the love between a frog and a cockatoo takes the form of duet Poison Love. Nigel’s disdain and loathing is infectious (“It’s an infestation” he utters, aghast at flock of Spix’s macaws). It’s the sign of a great villain if you want them to win, and with heroes as unpersuasive as these, it’s doubly so here.
Rio 2 hasn’t been overly adored, which isn’t too surprising, but really, it’s no worse than the spate of sub-par animated movies from the big studios over the past few years. It has a whole lot more going for it than Cars 2 or Kung Fu Panda 2. Back when Ice Age came out, Blue Sky was the weak sibling to superior product from Pixar and DreamWorks. Now it isn’t so much that they have upped their game as those studios are wearing the bottom line on their chins and their product is suffering the consequences. This particular sequel suffers from overstuffed storylines, weakly connected and resolved, but the salvation of many a half-hearted animation is at hand; the bad bird is a blast. As long as Nigel is back, I’ll be happy to sit through Rio 3.