3 years ago
Shyam Vedantam
Commentary

Musical comedy film features pleasant animation but pushes unnecessary subplots, weak characters

The experience of watching the animated family film “Rio 2” is like eating a second candy bar. The taste is ephemerally sweet and gratifying, but after it’s over, there’s a gradual realization that it didn’t taste quite as good as the first one. It was fine while it lasted, but otherwise, an unremarkable experience.

The first film, “Rio,” was a surprise hit, grossing $486 million. In it, Blu (Jesse Eisenberg), a domesticated blue macaw, is discovered as the last surviving male of his species. Conservationists then discovered a wild female blue macaw named Jewel (Anne Hathaway). The two are brought together in Rio de Janeiro to hopefully further the species.

“Rio” had a distinct and interesting cultural charm to it, no doubt brought out by Brazilian director Carlos Saldanha. It recreated, with a loving animation style, the city of Rio de Janeiro. The catchy musical numbers also had distinct Brazilian tones to them. Overall, it was a well-crafted family film with good dialogue, enough humor and easily digestible themes. The story did not end with a cliff hanger that needed to be answered with a sequel. The box office numbers undoubtedly inspired this production.

The setup for “Rio 2” is that a new population of blue macaws are found in the Amazon. Jewel, craving to get back to her jungle roots and teach her three children about how to live in the wild, convinces Blu to travel deep into the Amazon. Blu is reluctant to go, as he has largely adjusted to living with human technology, but he goes to make his wife happy. When they reach the Amazon, they run into the surviving blue macaws, led by patriarch Eduardo (Andy Garcia), who is also Jewel’s father, and Roberto (Bruno Mars), Eduardo’s right hand and perfect songbird. Unfortunately, Eduardo and Blu have different approaches on how to live, an illegal lumber business is threatening to destroy the rainforest and Nigel is returning as the villain from the first film to have revenge on Blu.

A large portion of the original cast — Jamie Fox, will.i.am, Leslie Mann and Rodrigo Santoro — comes back for this film, though they do feel very shoe-horned into it. A notable addition is Kristen Chenoweth as a poisonous frog, who probably has the most memorable musical number in the film.

The jungle is striking and brightly animated here. The 3D is put to good use, adding depth and layers to the forest. It isn’t a necessary upgrade, but thankfully it isn’t used in a gimmicky fashion or in dark scenery. The exuberant and shiny animation style is in line with previous films by Saldanha (“Rio,” the “Ice Age” series, “Robots”). The choreographed dance numbers are joyous if unimaginative.

The soundtrack, by John Powell (“How to Train Your Dragon,” “Kung Fu Panda”) alongside Brazilians Sergio Mendes and Carlinhos Brown, is again distinctly Brazilian in sound design. It’s pleasant to the ear and the musical motifs are fun enough to hum. The songs are decent, but they’re not quite good enough to knock “Frozen” off its claim on the billboards.

The problems really just stem from the overpopulated script. The story is credited to Saldanha, and the writing credits are shared by Carlos Kotkin, Jenny Bicks, Yoni Brenner and the late Don Rhymer. Many of the jokes appeal to the lowest common denominator and are extremely lowbrow. There is a creative idea to have a game resembling soccer in the film, since the World Cup will be in Rio this summer, but otherwise, the film’s plot points and themes are very bare bones. It’s a moderate step down in quality from the first.

This problem probably stems from the questionable inclusion of several plot threads intertwining through the film. Where the first had a creative idea supplemented by quirky characters in a soulful city, “Rio 2” thins out each of the characters so that everyone gets invited to the party.

As a family film, it doesn’t reinvent the wheel. At only 101 minutes, the film’s feverishly forward-pushing momentum causes the experience to end abruptly. “Rio 2” overfills its story with unnecessary subplots and multiple thin characters, but bright animation, a quick pace and a Brazilian-inspired soundtrack keep this film going.