Like a swaggering bird preening for affection, Rio puffs out its chest and hopes you’ll take notice. From the opening Busby Berkley-inspired sequence in the rain forest to the final climax amid the surrealist floats of Carnival, the entire film presents a landscape of incessant movement and momentum. Every frame is devoted to building emotional attachment out of camera movement and layers of detail, yet director Carlos Saldanha’s sincere but uninspired romp into the glossy postcard atmosphere of Rio de Janeiro is one long courtship that ultimately falls flat. All the luminous levels of canopy and texturally diverse color schemes can’t hide a staggering hollowness to the narrative. Strangely, underneath the incessant musical numbers, pop-culture references, and intricate tail feathers, an unsettling theme of segregation emerges. Birds and humans may dance the same samba (and they often do in Rio), but it’s never natural to groove together.
The tense undercurrent between species stems from the relationship between Blu (Jesse Eisenberg), a rare macaw swiped from the rainforest and illegally transported to the States as a baby, and his human owner, Linda (Leslie Mann), a kind but nerdy bookstore owner who finds the freezing fowl on the side of the road. Living harmoniously together in frigid Minnesota, Blu and Linda are best friends—a slightly creepy montage ripped right out of the Pixar universe establishes just how uncomfortably close they are—purposefully sectioned off from the real world of emotional relationships with their own kind. A clumsy Brazilian ornithologist named Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) upends their utopia, convincing Linda to bring Blu back to Rio so he can mate with the only remaining female of his rare breed, a tornado of anxiety and energy named Jewel (Anne Hathaway).
Considering the two codependent main characters (sheltered asexual woman and nerdy awkward male bird), Rio depends on the fish-out-of-water construct like no other recent animated film. The contained icicle universe of Minnesota is seen as regressive, while the colossal sunshine of Rio is redemptive and therapeutic, an improvisational space of dance and song that brings out the Orpheus in us all. This contrast reveals a deep anxiety in Blu over his inability to fly and forces Linda to address fears of losing her best bird to his natural habitat, all while repressing obvious feelings for Tuilo. Moments of heightened slow motion and other aesthetic manipulations makes it immediately clear that Blu and Jewel belong together simply because they’re birds, and Linda and Tulio because they are humans. Neither couple displays anything resembling chemistry, they just share the same DNA. For Rio, that’s more than enough.
This separation of species is solidified when poachers steal Blu and Jewel, leaving Linda and Tulio enough time to discover their own romance. The extended chase film narrative, where Blu and Jewel are pursued by the poacher’s devilish cockatoo named Nigel (Jemaine Clement) through the many bastions of Rio, is crafted merely to separate the two groups, establishing both couples in their rightful side of the natural divide. Blu comes to terms with his natural instinct to fly in a beautiful scene including a squadron of hang-gliders over the skies of Rio, while Linda finally takes charge of her own empowerment during a kinetic motorcycle ride through a favela. These sometimes exciting travails would make an impact if the thematic justification wasn’t so set in stone.
Rio completely sugarcoats Brazilian culture, sensuality, and rampant poverty with its stringent desire to paint landscapes and characterizations in simple hues. For the most part, kid-friendly lines like “You don’t want to get beak burn” or “Don’t talk to me about the food chain, I watch Animal Planet” populate much of the film, which is understandable considering the film’s obvious demographics. Still, the filmmakers don’t have much else on the mind. Fist pumps between species get old fast, while an entertaining battle between birds and thieving monkeys ends far too quickly, revealing just how little ingenuity Rio brings to the table. Only Nigel’s hilariously nasty musical number midway through the film, where the vile bird confesses his own regression into cannibalism, harbors tangible darkness. The heinous cockatoo is Rio’s most enduring asset, a grotesque maniac who, when on screen, makes the film deceptively dangerous. Best of all, Nigel’s revolting tendencies throws a wrench in Rio’s conservative segregationist themes, revealing him as a villainous counter to the film’s suffocating landscape of emotional banality, and a strange bird indeed.