With the voices of Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway, Leslie Mann, Will.i.Am, Jamie Foxx. Directed by Carlos Saldanha. Rated G. 96 minutes.
In the any race with three participants, someone has to be third, and of the major producers of American animation, there’s no question that Pixar/Disney is doing the best work out there. DreamWorks Animation often gives them a run for their (unfathomable piles of) money. This summer, the two giants battle it out with attempts to turn middling hit films into franchises with sequels to “Cars” and “Kung Fu Panda.” And then there’s Blue Sky Animation.
Blue Sky is the animation arm of 20th Century Fox, and by releasing their family-friendly films against no competition in the spring, have managed to turn the mediocre “Ice Age” movies into box office successes, having somewhat less success with “Robots” and “Horton Hears a Who.” With RIO, they’ve done their best work yet, but they can’t quite merge notable voice actors with animation to create memorable characters. It’s a colorful adventure kids will enjoy, but there’s no “Toy Story” or “Shrek” vibe likely to capture the popular imagination here.
In some respects, “Rio” borrows the plot of DreamWorks’ “Madagascar” films, only focusing on birds and Brazil rather than mammals and Africa. Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) is a rare blue macaw is taken by poachers as a baby bird, but through an accident, he ends up being adopted by a little girl in Minnesota. When Linda (Leslie Mann) grows up, she is approached by a Brazilian ornithologist who informs her that Blu is the last male of his species. He wants to bring them Rio di Janeiro so that Blu can mate with Jewel (Anne Hathaway).
Then other poachers steal Blu and Jewel, who manage to escape and join up with some locals (voiced by Will.i.am, Jamie Foxx, and George Lopez). Meanwhile, the bad guys – and their evil bird – are after them, as well as an army of monkeys. It all comes to a head during Carnivale, and the animators have a field day running this motley crew through elaborate floats and platoons of samba dancers. This sequence may be the best work Blue Sky has produced to date.
However, while the youngsters enjoy the G-rated fare, the adults have to listen to the pedestrian dialogue and the thinly-written characters. The males are either wimps or crooks (although one boy gets redeemed), and the females are all strong and assured. The filmmakers presumably want credit for breaking old stereotypes but they’ve merely substituted new ones. One of the plot points is that Blu never learned to fly, and is thus a drag on the others during the escape. Perhaps a strong girl bird can inspire him.
The casting of Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t help matters. After his stellar turn in “The Social Network,” he has a very recognizable voice and so you’re always aware of Eisenberg speaking Blu’s lines instead of becoming Blu the way, say, Robin Williams became the genie in “Aladdin.” One almost expects Blu to ask Jewel if he can friend her on Facebook.
“Rio” is a pleasant enough way to pass time with the kids but, in the end, it’s further evidence that Blue Sky makes animation you go to see only when there’s nothing better available•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.