This review was originally published on April 17, 2011. It has been reposted for the film's DVD and Blu-ray release.
Last month I met Brazilian filmmaker Jose Padilha ("The Elite Squad," "Bus 174") and he tried to convince me to visit Rio sometime. I told him that, thanks to his movies, I'm actually too scared of the place. But it's not just his work that has made me hesitant to travel to the "Marvelous City." Ever since the popularity of Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund's "City of God" a decade ago the majority of imported Brazilian films to the U.S., fiction and non-fiction, seem to be crime films or otherwise focus on poverty, slums, hijackings and kidnappings. When we do see the beach and other attractions it's to show tourists getting robbed by gangsters or street kids. Hardly the place for a pansy like myself to go exploring.
Fortunately for the sake of Rio's image and, in turn, tourism (not that it's necessarily been hurt by the past ten years' films; in fact, I hear favela tours are even a hot thing now), a new era could be upon us with the Blue Sky/Fox Animation film "Rio." If the 2000s were for the Brazilian city what the 1970s were for NYC, then this might be Rio's "Muppets Take Manhattan." Call it "Macaws Take Copacabana," or something. Due to its similarities with a certain Don Bluth film, I originally wanted to rename it "A South American Tail" But given that it's definitely the most positive piece of goodwill for Brazil to come out of Hollywood in 66 years, and it involves cartoon birds, we could also consider it "Another Three Caballeros" (or "Saudações Amigas Novamente").
The Rio of "Rio" is a place where, of course, Carnaval is always happening (or at least coincidentally whenever an American comes to town), the only thieves are marmosets (they're cute, so it's okay that they stole your watch), the only kidnappings are of rare birds (though one of them, our protagonist, the Jesse Eisenberg-voiced Blu, is a visitor from the States), street kids are just little poor boys with big rich hearts, and the view is always magnificent, especially if you can fly (hang gliders help the humans with this). Even the favelas look nice as computer-animated. The worst threat is a smuggling gang leader with barely a gang, his primary minions being stereotypically a couple of buffoons, and an evil cockatoo (Jemaine Clement) who performs possibly the worst rap song I've ever heard in my life (see the scene below).
The soundtrack might actually be the one aspect of the film I'd worry reflects a bad neighbor policy. Even with help from Brazilian music greats Sergio Mendes (who served as the album's executive producer and whose bossa nova classic "Mas Que Nada" gets a remix) and Carlinhos Brown, the songs are all a terrible mash-up of the worst kind of American pop (Will.i.am voices a character, after all, and serves as the other music producing authority) mixed with traditional and Tropicalia sounds from the region. One song, by Ester Dean, can only be described as sounding like a cover of Rebecca Black in which the sole choral lyric "Friday, Friday, Friday" is replaced with "Rio, Rio, Rio." I guess it has a lot of kiddie appeal, but I also think most young people can dig more authentic Brazilian music, too.
Hopefully Rio-born director Carlos Saldanha, a longtime Fox Animation helmer who finally got to make his passion project celebrating his hometown, is getting some love from leaders down in Brazil. I can't wait to hear reports of children all over the world who are begging their parents for a trip to the land of birds, bird songs, bird costumes, etc. And despite what Padilha and others' films have led me to believe, I'm sure Rio is actually a very nice and relatively safe place to visit. Probably not the candy colored dream world of "Rio," but surely something between the two extreme representations. Maybe one day I'll actually make it down there, now, but there better be lots of masquerade and parades when I get off the plane.
"Rio" is now on DVD and Blu-ray.
Recommended If You Like: "Bolt"; "The Three Caballeros"; "Ice Age"