Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Cinema File #335: "Rio 2" Review

Right next to my regular theater, there's a little curio shop that sells the kind of things that I can not fathom ever wanting to buy: incense, fancy oils, animal figurines, and other assorted nature nut merch. I imagine this place will be getting a lot more foot traffic in the next couple of weeks as the target audience for Rio 2 comes out of the wood work. It has everything they'd want, cute jungle critters, forgettably cheery songs for them to dance to, and an environmentalist message shallow enough that it makes people who care feel good about themselves without actually expecting them to do anything. Sure, outside of its niche its not very good, but if you're into this sort of thing, well, your life is probably pretty sad as it is, so who am I to begrudge you your entertainment?

Rio 2 is the (long awaited?) follow up to 2011's Rio, a movie apparently successful enough to merit a sequel, but obscure enough that even an animation nerd such as myself forgot it was a thing until its sequel was announced. I never saw the first movie, but from what I gather, it followed a domesticated Blue Macaw named Blue, once thought the last of his kind, romancing and starting a family with a newly discovered wild female. This new adventure finds the whole blue bird family on a vacation to the Amazon Rain forest to investigate reports of even more Blue Macaw sightings, where they find a whole tribe of them that causes the city slicker Blue to struggle with life in the state of nature. As much as I'm tempted to trot out my Thomas Hobbes and call the movie nasty, brutish, and short, Rio 2 isn't quite that bad, but then its not that good either, and at a time when animated movies seem to be getting better and better every year, being just okay just doesn't feel like enough anymore.

This is the kind of animated kids film that was no doubt built at the script level by committee, which to be fair is the case with most of them, but in this case, it really shows. I'm sure the wacky rapping bird's antics scored positively with test audiences, but for the life of me I can't remember what if any bearing he or his many, many unnecessary sidekicks had on the plot. Then again, plot doesn't seem to be the thing this movie was ever designed to showcase, as its really just a flimsy framework for a play list of some of the least memorable songs you'll ever hear, as a background beat to watch pretty birds of various sizes, shapes, and colors fly around in formation. I didn't see this in 3D, but I can't help but think the visuals popping out at your face were more important to the filmmakers than anything you might have gotten with the regular 2D showing. Or you could just get really high. That would probably make all the swirling colors really fun too.

Its a shame that the story is given such short shrift, as I can actually see it working really well if it was given just a little more focus. The idea of a relationship built on the premise that the two involved are the last of their kind, only to have this assumption and their romantic stability thrown out the window with the introduction of familial and cultural rivals is complex enough that I can almost picture the better movie this could have been. Of course, bird-centric cuckoldry isn't exactly fun for the whole family, so this idea is soon scrapped for a more mainstream Meet The Parents-esque fish out of water series of awkward moments in which Blue fails to measure up to his wild analogs. Again, could have worked, but just as I settle into a groove and start to think the movie is going somewhere interesting, it pivots into whatever the most obvious cliche is associated with that thread and then moves on to the next thing. Did you think Blue's arbitrarily introduced talent for bouncing blueberries might be relevant later? You'd be right, and you still won't give a crap.

The best element of the movie by far is the cadre of villains, or at least one of the two cadres, led by Flight of the Concords' Jemaine Clement as an absurdly theatrical Cockatoo out for revenge against Blue and his family for their causing him to lose his ability to fly in the last movie. I get this from a flashback, and while its not interesting enough to compel me to watch the original, its enough to keep me interested in the character, who is more entertaining than any other character in the movie, and somehow more engaging the less baring he has on the plot. Though he's technically the villain, his plan is barely significant to anything, but its enough that he can cackle maniacally and be delightfully full of himself whenever he's on screen. By the halfway point I desperately wanted the entire movie to be about him and his would-be paramour, a naively evil and strangely amorous poisonous frog played by Kristen Chenoweth, I assume cast only to allow for a weird interlude where she belts out a love song with all the passion of a Wicked alum.

Oh, and the other bad guys are loggers. I point this out only to once again rail at the stupidity of environmentalist messages in kids movies designed for mass market commercial appeal. Call it The Ferngully Paradox, wherein a movie wants to have a "Save The Rain forest" stance, but in the context of a property expected to inspire Happy Meal toys created by the fast food industry. So, instead of pointing out that the biggest threat to the rain forest is represented by clear cutting for factory farms to make the burgers that go into Happy Meals, we get an enemy we can all hate from the safety of our white American privilege, conveniently amorphous enough that we'd never think to actually take a real stand by, say, boycotting the places where we get Happy Meals. Sorry, didn't mean to get on a soapbox there, and don't take that to mean that I'm not every bit the consumerist fast food junkie this movie and every other movie ever made wants me to be, but I just happen to find deflating hypocrisy just as tasty as a Big Mac.

So anyway, Rio 2 is a movie, I guess. Sorry again, but there's only so much enthusiasm I can muster at this point. In a few months, LAIKA studios will bring us The Boxtrolls, and the little wonder starved kid inside me will no doubt be brought to life again by the magic of animated film. In the meantime, for most people, this is a decent if somewhat hollow way to pass the time. My grandmother, who devotes an entire room in her house to her birds, will almost certainly enjoy its aesthetic as I can only assume she enjoyed the first one. If you are also one to risk rare and exotic diseases in the care of our winged friends, or just like the idea of them fluttering around bouncing Brazil nuts on their beaks, than this is the movie for you. And why shouldn't you get one? I get like five comic book movies a year, and I'm too much of a geek to even appreciate them. Go nuts. Bird it up, or whatever. Okay, now it sounds like I'm intimating that you have sex with birds, and you probably don't. But if you do, you'll really love Rio 2. A lot.

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