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Pampered parrot finds it’s a jungle out there in ‘Rio’

‘Rio’ ★★★

With the voices of:

Blu Jesse Eisenberg

Linda Leslie Mann

Jewel Anne Hathaway

Nigel Jemaine Clement

Tulio Rodrigo Santoro

Twentieth Century Fox presents an animated film directed by Carlos Saldanha. Written by Saldanha and Don Rhymer. Running time: 96 minutes. Rated PG (for mild off-color humor). Opening today at local theaters.

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

A South American setting and striking animation lend freshness to “Rio” and its otherwise much-traveled storyline about a pampered pet who has to learn to survive in the wild. We’ve seen this tale many times — “Madagascar,” “Bolt,” “The Wild,” “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” and more. But this version is buoyed by local color — literally, with a vibrantly sun-drenched palette, along with a sensationally festive Carnival parade, and a slinky samba-licious soundtrack overseen by Rio’s most enduringly popular musical export, Sergio Mendes.

Blu (voice of Jesse Eisenberg) is a rare blue macaw captured as a tiny chick by smugglers in Brazil. His crate falls from a truck in snowy Minnesota (identified onscreen simply as “Not Rio”) and is rescued by a girl named Linda. He grows up blissfully domesticated and never bothers to learn to fly. Everything he wants is within reach. He brings Linda (Leslie Mann) her glasses when she wakes up, and she makes sure he has just the right number of marshmallows in his hot chocolate. As he explains, he is not a pet; he is a companion. Linda insists he is her best friend.

They are visited by an ornithologist named Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro), who tells Linda there is just one last surviving female blue macaw: Jewel (Anne Hathaway). Unless they mate, it will be the end of their species. Linda reluctantly agrees to take Blu to Brazil. But smugglers show up again to steal Blu and Jewel. Blu has to learn some survival skills and make some new friends to find his way back to Linda.

Brazilian-born director Carlos Saldanha (director of the “Ice Age” films and co-director of the underrated “Robots”) takes evident pride and delight in bringing his homeland to the screen, taking full advantage of 3-D CGI so that we can swoop around the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue atop the Corcovado mountain and hang-glide over miles of beaches.

He has fun with Brazilian culture, too. When Carnival revelers cross in front of their car, Linda asks Tulio if a woman in a gold-spangled costume is a performer. “No,” he replies, “she’s my dentist.” As the woman in the spangles happily runs off to the celebration, she reminds Tulio to floss. And Blu provides a critique of samba music that will sound familiar to its fans.

Eisenberg’s tremulous voice is just right for Blu, giving him a neurotic, urban, understated wit. “You know how people say ‘It’s a jungle out there?’” he complains to Jewel when they find themselves in the middle of a rainforest. “Not a good thing.” He gets strong support from Tracy Morgan as a bulldog, George Lopez as a toucan, and and Jamie Foxx as friendly birds.

But the star of the show in every respect is a cockatoo named Nigel (Jemaine Clement of HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords”), one of the most masterfully animated characters in movie history. Blue Sky Studios created a remarkable bird villain named Vlad three years ago in “Horton Hears a Who.” It was a daunting challenge to animate the infinite complexities of dozens of wing joints and thousands of feathers, but Vlad was onscreen only briefly. Here the animators take what they learned from Vlad much further. Nigel is a key figure with an even more complicated structure, at once menacing and shambling, who sings, dances, menaces and fights, all in character. The algorithms necessary for what can only be called Nigel’s performance could probably have programmed a moon shot, and yet he seems completely natural and fluidly expressive. Clement’s voice work is a perfect match, and Nigel’s musical tribute to his own villainy is pure pleasure.

Saldanha is at his best when dozens of characters are onscreen. Whether they are dancing or fighting, they are colorful, joyous and meticulously choreographed. A battle between the birds and the monkeys is exciting and funny, and the opening dance number is a kaleidoscopic treat. The climax, in the middle of a Carnival parade with massive floats and crowds of thousands, is brilliantly imagined. Blu spends most of the movie trying to get off the ground, but with Nigel and these big, showy scenes, Saldanha makes the movie soar.

Nell Minow is the film critic for the site

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