The best single word I can use to describe the film Rio is 'vibrant' as it's the colors that really hit you. One can see why, when you're doing a story about birds, setting it in Brazil with its dazzling variety of brilliantly multicolored avian species is a truly inspired choice.
The story begins when a baby blue macaw in the Brazilian rain forest falls (literally) into the hands of exotic animal poachers and ends up being shipped to the US where, by a fortunate accident, he ends up being adopted by a young girl named Linda in a small town in, of all places, wintry Minnesota. A quick flash forward shows girl and bird, which she names Blu, growing up together, to fifteen years later where Linda is now an adult who owns her own bookstore. The thing is though, Blu, raised as a house-bird, never learned how to fly.
The plot really begins when a Brazilian ornithologist named Tulio comes to Linda's store, having learned from her web-site that she's the owner of Blu, who apparently is one of the last male blue macaws in the world. Despite getting off on the wrong foot with Linda, he eventually persuades her to come with him to Brazil so that they can mate Blu with a female blue macaw named Jewel that they've managed to capture. Once there, however, the mating plan hits a snag as Jewel wants only to escape back to her jungle and has nothing but disdain for Blu, who only wants to get back with his human. Further complications set in when both birds are stolen by exotic animal black-marketeers who intend to sell them to the highest bidder. The two birds, though chained together, manage to escape, but it's rough going, particularly when Jewel discovers that Blu can't fly and she can't fly away while she's chained to him, and the bird thieves are hot on their trail, right in the middle of Brazil's biggest and most flamboyant of all festivals, Carnival.
Director/writer Carlos Saldanha goes the distance in bringing some authentic Brazilian touches to the film. I particularly liked the way in which he brought out how everyone in Brazil is soccer-crazy, with good guys and bad constantly being distracted whenever a game is on.
The themes are familiar ones - characters are thrust out of their familiar environments into ones they find strange and challenging, characters who don't get along but are stuck together learn to appreciate each other, danger threatens, help comes from unexpected quarters, fears are overcome, and so on - but the characters in Rio are engaging and the story-telling is well done so you just lean back and enjoy the show. And Rio is a true visual pleasure to watch just for the sheer vibrancy of its colors and for the exotic setting of Rio de Janeiro during Carnival.
The voice actors for the most part do a creditable job bringing their characters to life. The stand-outs are clearly Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) as Blu and Anne Hathaway (The Devil Wears Prada) as Jewel, who succeed in not only bringing out the individual personalities of the two macaws but also make you believe in the way the two birds gradually begin to accept and relate to each other. But Leslie Mann and Rodrigo Santoro are also exceptional as the humans Linda and Tulio, Mann for bringing out Linda's mix of independence and introvert and Santoro for Tulio's engagingly manic if clumsy extrovert. Comedic actor Tracy Morgan has fun voicing Luiz, a Carnival-loving bulldog whose bark may be worse than his bite but whose drool trumps both. And Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) adds a deliciously nasty touch as the villainous cockatoo, Nigel.
(Note: I was wondering why a Brazilian cockatoo was talking with what sounded like an Australian accent, but I later found out that cockatoos are in fact of Australasian origin. So chalk up another point for Rio for being educational as well as entertaining.)
The songs are enjoyable if largely forgettable but nicely add to the Brazilian atmosphere. The stand-out exception is the song Nigel sings (as near as I can tell, it's simply called "Nigel's Song") where he explains why he is "not a pretty bird". There seems to be some kind of rule, in recent years anyway, that in any animated musical film, the bad guys always get the best songs.
Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys beautifully colored animation, engaging characters and good basic storytelling.