Part of what made “Rio” such a creative and commercial success was how much it bore the personal stamp of its director, Carlos Saldanha. The Brazilian-born animator poured all his great affection for the city, its culture, and its Carnival vibrancy into the movie, and it showed. His colorful avian characters couldn’t have had a better backdrop for helping them pop, narratively and visually. Need a scene with Jesse Eisenberg’s nervous-nellie macaw, Blu, learning to fly? Send him panoramically floating around the statue of Christ the Redeemer. Need the requisite catchy musical sequence? Set it to a samba beat.
“Rio 2” feels less personal, and more like a case of Saldanha’s team working hard – too hard – to concoct a tropical blend with an equally pleasing kick. In shipping their cartoon flock 2000 miles away, to the Amazon, the filmmakers have created a back-to-nature story line which, ironically, just doesn’t have the same organic quality. It’s fun in stretches, but also busily forced. (The move from exotic to exotic-adjacent recalls “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.”)
The setup finds Blu and Jewel (Anne Hathaway) still happily nesting in their Rio sanctuary, with their three kids routinely up to mischief in the Huey-Dewey-and-Louie vein. Blu may have gotten past his flight issues and Minnesota-transplant culture shock, but his old fretfulness comes creeping back following some big news from Amazon country. The rare birds’ human pals, Linda and Tulio (Leslie Mann and Rodrigo Santoro), believe their jungle expedition has turned up more blue macaws. Jewel sees a great opportunity to break the kids of Blu’s housetrained habits and get them all to experience the wild. Conveniently, feathered friends Nico (Jamie Foxx), Pedro (will.i.am), and Rafael (George Lopez) find reasons to tag along.
The wild ends up being a complicated place. Turns out the newly discovered birds are led by Jewel’s father, Eduardo (Andy Garcia), a drill sergeant right down to his amusing parrothead brush cut – and someone with no use for Blu and his domesticated neuroses. Blu’s hang-ups are further aggravated by Jewel’s dreamy “childhood friend,” Roberto (Bruno Mars, crooning away). Meanwhile, cockatoo baddie Nigel (Jemaine Clement) has resurfaced, determined to poop on the gang’s dance party with an assist from girlie dart frog Gabi (Kristin Chenoweth), the Valerie Perrine to his Lex Luthor. And Linda and Tulio have run afoul of a villainous logger (Miguel Ferrer) who crunches lollipops and rainforest with equal, nasty relish.
The story flows, but not always freely, thanks to its manufactured feel. There’s a great, funny musical sequence with Nico and Pedro auditioning “local talent” for Carnival. (Simon Cowell has nothing on contestant-gobbling panthers and piranhas.) But a macaws-versus-parrots futbol match, while typically eye-catching, plays like an element too dutifully pulled from some supplemental checklist of Brazilian touchstones. The filmmakers sometimes do better, surprisingly, by simply repeating themselves: Clement again vamps hilariously, covering “I Will Survive” like it’s Shakespeare. The “Rio” franchise may well go on, too, but hopefully with a story that really does feel natural next time.