MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Rio

Rio (Three Stars)
U.S.: Carlos Saldanha, 2011

Rio is a big, coruscatingly colorful feature-cartoon love-letter to Rio de Janeiro from Brazilian director/writer Carlos Saldanha (director and co-director on the Ice Age movies), and it’s full of spectacular computer-cartoon images of Saldanha’s legendary city of samba, aswarm with funny animals acting wild and crazy in Carnival time.

Saldanha’s movie, a gorgeous and obviously heartfelt tribute to his city, whirls and pulses and dances and pops with energy. At its most exciting and colorful, it soars through the skies around the Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado Mountain, and over Rio beaches of golden sand teeming with bikini-clad Brazilian dolls, and the guys eyeing them, and suntan oil, and waving hips and multicolored beach umbrellas, all backed by hills rising to a sky filled with shacks and poor people (they dance too), rimmed by an ocean clear and blue as a piece of fallen sky (as Ross MacDonald would say).

In the movie, when we’re not swooping though the skies on hang-gliders or on bird wing, we’re sometimes dropping down below to the streets of the city: those hot, seething, spacious or half-mean streets swallowed in the frenzy of Carnival in one of the world‘s favorite playgrounds: the city of Black Orpheus, the city of That Man in Rio, the city of Pixote and of City of God, here recreated visually at its torrid, rhythmic Carnival Bossa Nova/beat best.

As for the funny animals, Rio has ‘em up the hip-shaking wazoo, including those ultimate funny animals called humans (sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes compassionate, sometimes greedy and money-mad). The good humans here include Linda the bookseller from Moose Lake, Minnesota (Leslie Mann), and Tulio the animal scientist from Rio (Rodrigo Santorio).

More than that, we’ve got an evil Australian cockatoo named Nigel (Jemaine Clement). We’ve got bad-ass black market marmosets. We’ve got a Big Daddy Toucan named Rafael voiced by George Lopez, a sensitive but slobbering bulldog named Luiz (Tracy Morgan), two frisky little birds, canary and cardinal, named Nico and Pedro (Jamie Foxx and will i. am) and lots of monkeys. There’s Chloe and Alice the Geese (Jane Lynch and Wanda Sykes), and, at the center of it all, there are those two precious blue macaws: neurotic, non-flying Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) originally smuggled out of Brazil, but now a proud resident of Moose Lake and Linda’s bookish pet, and also the free spirited, high-flying Jewel (Anne Hathaway) an adventuress from the Brazilian rain forest, who may be Blu‘s destiny. (At least, they didn’t name her Ray.)

They’re the last of their kind. And, of course, those two good, decent humans, Linda and Tulio, want to save the species (the blue macaws, that is), by flying Blu down to Rio, bringing them together so they’ll begin to know and like each other, and nature will take its course and blue macaws shall not perish from the earth.

As you can probably guess, this plan gets messed up. Instead of falling in love, Blu and Jewel squabble and then are kidnapped by the villains, then escape while being handcuffed together like Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps. (What do you think a villain would do in a movie like this: grab a guitar and play “One Note Samba?”) Then the macaw couple stay on the run, thanks to Pedro, Nico, Rafael and a cute little street boy, all the time being hunted by some very bad funny animals and some worse human smugglers (led by Carlos Ponce as sneery Marcel).

Subsequently there are a lot of chases involving almost everybody, but especially the malevolent Nigel, who puts a lot of cunning and malice into stealing the macaws, when he isn’t stealing the movie. But it’s Carnaval, Carnaval — the same Rio carnival that made the young Orson Welles almost drunk with joy as he filmed it for his aborted ‘40s South American documentary It‘s All True, the project that ended his RKO career. We know what’s likely to happen to those not-yet-lovebirds — and no amount of Alerts could Spoil it for us: whether Blu will fly and find himself and be free, and Jewel make it back to the forest, and whether Nigel will be foiled, and even how many times they’re going to let Jesse Eisenberg sing.

This should be a wow of a movie, and technologically, it is a wow. That usual bugaboo of 3D cartoons, and of 3D live action movies as well — the dim-lit colors of the 3D process as seen (darkly) through dark 3D glasses — doesn’t seem to apply here. Rio’s digital recreations of fur and feathers on the animals, or of the verdant riots of green and the cascades of flowers in the forest , and all the sights of the city, from the darkest alley to the line of posh tourist hotels towering above the sun-drenched beach, are both warmly glowing and phenomenally rich, saturated and ablaze with fiery colors and images.

The cast is top-notch; Clement‘s Nigel, as mentioned, swipes the show. True, the story line isn’t too original. But it’s a cute movie and it’s done with spectacular technical finesse. You can tell how much Saldanha loves his subject because he never stops fussing with it. He’s like a painter doing a fresco who just can’t quit, who keeps adding new visual touches, new vibrant splashes of paint. Saldanha and his artists put so much energy and finicky devotion into their cartoon Rio that you can almost feel the waves of affection rolling onto the beaches and right off the screen.

If I were a kid of six again, I’d portably be so entranced by all this that I’d grab my mother’s hand and say afterwards “Mommy, Mommy, can we go to Rio?” And she’d have to explain that “No that’s a little out of reach, at least for now (though you know she would if she could). But maybe we can go see the movie again sometime. Would you like that?” Yes! Yes! Which animal did you like best, Mommy? I liked the bulldog!

But something’s missing.

And it’s not what you’d expect. Rio’s music, always near the heart of any Rio de Janeiro-set movie, is plentiful and catchy and infectious, and it’s always good in separate pieces. But the score is lacking something, and in the one area where the movie should have been all aces, should have blown us away.

When the French-Brazilian art film and Oscar and Cannes winner, Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus, 1959), conquered the movie-going world in the early 60s, a lot of it was due to the two young South American composers whose music figured prominently throughout the movie: Luis Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim. One of those two, Jobim, has a song in Rio too, an old song, and so does Jorge Ben. Bby now they’re great old or late masters and the songs are great standards: Jobim‘s “The Girl from Ipanema” (thank you, Stan Getz) and Ben‘s “Mas que Nada,“ in the famous version by Rio‘s music producer and supervisor Sergio Mendes (of Brasil 66).

Mendes, obviously an expert, weaves together for Rio a seductive mix of a score that ranges from “Mas que Nada” to snippets of Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me” (not Brazilian but a heavy-duty aphrodisiac according to Rio’s bird scientists) to a raft of new or old songs composed by a musical roster ranging from Mendes to Carlinhos Brown to Ester Dean (“Let Me Take You to Rio”) to will I. am, and sung or played by the composers or by cast members like Hathaway, Foxx, am, Clement, Lopez and Eisenberg.

But I’ll tell you my objection — and it’s partly a general objection to a trend in animated features today.

The newer feature cartoons often don‘t have old style song scores, often don’t have song scores at all, maybe because they tend to cast big movie stars in the voice-leads, some of whom probably can’t sing, or can’t sing well enough. And some of these movies are fine, perfect without them, like Wall-E or Up or a great old-fashioned French art cartoon like The Illusionist. Those movies don’t need songs.

Rio, by contrast, does. Music should be essential to this movie, the air that it breathes. In some ways, it is, but in one important area, it’s not. Rio has lots of music, both original and old, 16 songs or pieces in all. And it has some show-stopping numbers — but it’s not organized like the older more Broadway-show-style cartoon classics, or the Howard Ashman-Alan Menken movies. And I think it should be.

Rio has novelty numbers (like Nigel‘s), and a big forest creature hoe-down right at the start, and an ensemble song at the end, and complete numbers all the way through. And it uses some classic old love ballads as backgrounds.

But it doesn’t have, for example, a big new romantic ballad, for the hero and heroine to sing, or have sung to them, or lots of story songs for the others. And it doesn’t really have what you’d expect in a movie about Carnival: a big long rousing show-stopping carnival enemble number in the street. It has sixteen songs, or pieces of songs, and there’s almost always a beat going. But relatively few of those songs are played to the hilt, as a “big routine,” like the Pink Elephant Dance in Dumbo, or “Circle of Life” in The Lion King. (Remember how Walt Disney thrillingly introduced the original Ary Barroso song “Brazil” in Saludos Amigos and how long he let it play?)

God, did this movie frustrate me!

Time and again a number starts and then breaks off or recedes into the background of another scene, or we get scraps of music, or the songs (unlike Nigel’s) aren’t character songs that reveal personality and advance the story. Every time they went into another number and then broke off to do something else, I was disappointed.

And every time they actually went through a whole song, I was delighted and hoped for more. But, even though there are sixteen songs (or bits of them), you have to wait until the end-credits until you can trust that they’ll be sung all the way through.

If you think those kind of numbers and that kind of treatment aren’t all that important to making a musical cartoon classic of the old kind (and the new kind, as in Tangled), think of what Snow White would be without “Heigh Ho” or “Someday My Prince Will Come” or Pinocchio without “When You Wish Upon a Star,” or The Little Mermaid without “Under the Sea,” or The Lion King without “Circle of Life” or “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?“

Rio without music would be like a beautiful body without a pulse. And for me, Rio without more of an old-fashioned song score to amplify the story, is often like a heart that skips a beat. A missed opportunity.

Maybe I’m exaggerating. Rio has lots of music, after all, double the numbers of some of the movies I’m mentioning. Compared to the new movie cartoons with no song scores at all, or just one or two, it’s a feast. And I don’t think Saldanha is deliberately trying to tease us. He probably thinks he and Mendes made a movie bursting with music old and new, a real tribute to Brazilian pop culture. And in a way they did. But their movie could have done both.

And I think it should have. It’s in Rio! If ever a movie cartoon should have had a great score, great songs, nonstop music, a score that satisfied you on every level, from Jobim (and Sinatra?) and Bonfa and Ben to Ashman-Menken, from “Corcovado” and “Black Orpheus” to “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” and “When You Wish Upon a Star,“ it’s Rio. Oh well…I liked the bulldog. And we’ll get to Rio some day.

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5 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: Rio”

  1. retasilva says:

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  2. Bill Steiner says:

    The language of Brazil is Portuguese not Spanish, yet not one of the performers had a Portuguese accent. This is a movie about Rio and Brazil but the majority of the actors were Spanish speakers.

  3. Paul says:

    Overall, this sounds like a fun movie worth seeing. I’ll give it a shot. Thanks for the review.

    Also, Bill S. makes a solid point about Portuguese vs Spanish. The failure to use Portuguese accents is a sloppy and says something—not positive—about the cultural mindset of the producers and directors.

  4. Cindy says:

    This movie in English is great.
    Spanish translation is sloppy!
    I agree that more Portuguese accents could have been used, but don’t affect the overall effect of the movie when watched in English. On the other hand, the Spanish translation has to be one of the worst movies I have ever seen. As a Spanish native speaker from Mexico, living in the US, I am raising bilingual children and want them exposed to both languages. The Spanish expressions used is considered “thug-slang” commonly associated with an under-educated sector. The slang used MIGHT have been appropriate for the thug characters in the movie, but since this slang was used across the board on ALL characters, it very distracting more than anything else.

    We will not be watching this movie in Spanish at all.

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So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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