2011's computer-animated hit "Rio
" featured one element that superseded the mundane plotting and only-okay script: its dazzlingly distinctive depiction of Brazil's seaside city of Rio de Janeiro and the area's flashily colored annual Carnival celebration. If the writing was mostly uninspired and the character types exceedingly familiar, at least the title locale was cool to drink in. For "Rio 2," returning director Carlos Saldanha and screenwriters Carlos Kotkin, Jenny Bicks, Yoni Brenner and the late Don Rhymer (who passed away from cancer in 2012) have made the bewildering decision to set at least ninety percent of the film two thousand miles away in the Amazon rainforest. Indeed, after the opening ten minutes, the eclectic, visually resplendent city is never seen again, traded in for a comparatively monotonous backdrop of near-constant greenery. More baffling stilland despite its luscious appearanceRio is viewed negatively as a smog-filled rat-trap worthy of escaping and never coming back. Suffice it to say, the Rio Convention & Visitors Bureau should be none too pleasednor should anyone expecting the film to keep the momentum going following the recent much-better animated features "The LEGO Movie
" and "Mr. Peabody & Sherman
Now happily married and living peacefully at the Blue Bird Sanctuary in Rio de Janeiro, Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway) have begun to worry that their domesticated, iPod-wearing children, Carla (Rachel Crow), Bia (Amandla Stenberg) and Tiago (Pierce Gagnon), are losing sight of nature and what it means to be a bird. Yearning to return to nature, Jewel plans a trip for the five of them to fly to the Amazon. Once there, Jewel is overwhelmed to discover that her father, Eduardo (Andy Garcia), and the rest of her long-lost flock of blue Spix's macaws are alive and well. Dismayed over the idea that she might want to remain in the forest permanently, Blu nonetheless attempts to fit in and finds himself continuously rebuffed by Eduardo. Worse still, the patriarchal macaw flat-out refuses to accept humans as anything other than threats, a belief with which Blu, whose best friend is former owner-companion Linda (Leslie Mann), strongly disagrees.
The most aesthetically enticing scene in all of "Rio 2" is its first one, the film opening on a twinkly lit New Year's Eve celebration in Rio de Janeiro. Ten minutes later, Blu and his family pack their bags and leave the city, never to return. The drastic change in setting is a problem for a movie called "Rio 2," but this could be overlooked if the story in question was involving and worthwhile. This is where things really go downhill. Predictably, the eco-friendly theme of conservationism continues, but the narrative servicing it is thoroughly lackadaisical. The characters turn to singing and dancing not to further the plot and deepen relationships (as in, for example, 2013's wonderful "Frozen
"), but simply to extend the barebones material to 101 minutes. This includes a riff on Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," which should immediately clue the viewer in on the level of imagination and freshness going into the script. Meanwhile, there are two central villainsreturning heavy Nigel (Jemaine Clement), a cockatoo injured at the end of the first film and now unable to fly, and a group of human loggers planning to tear down a part of the rainforestbut no palpable interest is put into making them particularly threatening. The way they are dealt with in the climax falls into pure afterthought territory.
Jesse Eisenberg (2013's "Now You See Me
") and Anne Hathaway (2012's "Les Misérables
") shared ample charisma in the predecessor as Blu and Jewel, but have trouble carrying this over within a script that transforms Jewel from feisty and self-effacing to plain and harpy. When Blu confides in her about his concerns, she accuses him of thinking about no one but himself. Never does she or Eduardo apologize for treating him so poorly, yet by the end all is intended to be harmonious and their wrongheaded actions forgotten. Of all the vocal talent involved, it is Kristin Chenoweth (2013's "Family Weekend
"), as lovelorn poisonous frog Gabi, who breathes the most charm into the proceedings. Desperately mad for Nigel, who isn't quite as evil as he likes to think, Gabi has no choice but to keep her feelings at bay lest she touch and kill him instantly.
The best family films of the animated variety usually thread humor and genuine emotion into a tapestry that touches the viewer and sends him or her out on a high note. Even if they are about ogres or lions or magical princesses or, yes, blue macaws, the characters should be universal and relatable, touching upon ideas and conflicts and rites of passage with which anyone can identify. "Rio 2" traverses the importance of family and learning to appreciate the simple pleasures in lifein this way it is a lot like 2010's "Grown Ups
," of all moviesbut it comes off as disingenuous and never goes deep enough to build any lasting dramatic substance. Furthermore, there's an inadvertent racist undercurrent in Jewel's insistence that they stay with their kind and not venture outside the Amazon to co-exist with the rest of the world. In their drive to capitalize on the box-office success of "Rio
," 20th Century Fox, Blue Sky Studios and director Carlos Saldanha have conceived of a misguided sequel that seems meandering and carelessly thrown together with no attention paid to its mixed messaging and detrimental alteration in location. "Rio 2" takes a property that was already on the mediocre side and cuts it at the knees.