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Director: Carlos Saldanha
Release Date: March 22, 2011
Rating: ★★
Review:

I will get down to business at once: I didn’t like this movie. It’s not so easy to pinpoint what’s wrong with it, though, and clearly most people rank this film higher than I do (it gets a pretty solid 6,9 on IMDb for example), but I’ll try to unravel what I think is wrong with this picture.

‘Rio’ tells about Blu, a blue macaw who by chance ends up with little girl Linda in Moose Lake, Minnesota (Wikipedia says Blu is a Spix’s Macaw, but I’m pretty sure the film makers intended Blu to be a fantasy species). A short sequence shows us how Linda and Blu grow up together as inseparable friends. Linda even names her bookshop after her pet. Then ornithologist Túlio comes along, telling Linda that Blu may be the last male of his species, and that he wants him to mate with a newly found female in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Linda reluctantly agrees, and the rest of the film takes part in Rio de Janeiro, where the two birds get stolen, and Linda and Túlio have a hard time getting them back…

Now, from the outset it becomes clear that Blu and Jewel, the wild female, are meant for each other, despite their obvious differences and life histories, but the film also immediately couples Linda and Túlio in a far from subtle fashion. And when little boy Fernando declares he’s an orphan, and we follow him for a little while in his loneliness, we know where he will end up at the conclusion of the film.

In other words, utter predictability is one of Rio’s main flaws. Outside of that it never deviates from familiar tropes. There are the two inept henchmen, there’s your obligate break-up scene, there are two birds whose sole existence seems to be comic relief. Everything in ‘Rio’ is tried and done. Even worse, in ‘Rio’ it isn’t done so well. For example, the two comic relief birds, Pedro and Nico are hardly funny and both have very shallow personalities.

The latter is the problem of all personas in ‘Rio’. Even main star Blu is hardly defined. An early scene with some Canadian geese suggests he’s a bit of a nerd, but during most of the film Blu’s actions follow from the facts that he has been a pet whole his life, and that he cannot fly. These can hardly be called character traits. During the break-up scene he even acts like a complete jerk, for no apparent reason. Voice actor Jesse Eisenberg has difficulties in breathing some sympathy into Blu, anyway.

Even worse fairs Linda, of whom I can only say she loves Blu and that she feels out of place in Brazil, and Túlio, who’s depicted as a quirky, not to say rather loony scientist. Why does he have to be loony, why can’t he just be a devoted scientist, for @#% sake!

Because Linda and Túlio hardly have a story arc together their bonding feels forced. Because Blu and Linda are forced to spend some time together, their bonding feels more natural, even if it follows all predictable patterns.

Another problem I have with the story is that it lacks a strong villain. Sure, the cockatoo Nigel is evil enough, but in the end he’s only a henchman of some petty crime thieves. In the all too quick and easy round up at the end of the film all visible criminals are punished, except for the mysterious off-screen buyer of the two rare birds. A very unsatisfying ending, indeed!

‘Rio’ isn’t a musical, but Nigel sings one of two songs that suddenly emerge. The song gives Nigel some background story, but he doesn’t need one and the song is completely superfluous. The other song is an R&B song by Pedro (musician will.i.am of Black Eyed Peas fame) and Nico (actor Jamie Foxx). Curiously, the two actors are black, not Latino. In fact, only Rodrigo Santoro, who voices Túlio, is a Brazilian, and George Lopez (Rafael) the only other Latino among the main characters.

And this brings me to another problem with ‘Rio’: Rio de Janeiro is well-depicted visually, but aurally little is done with the rich musical tradition of Brazil. True, the film opens and ends with an English language samba, and the toucan Rafael shortly sings ‘The girl of Ipanema’, but the two original songs mentioned above have no grain of Brazil in them, nor does the rest of the soundtrack, which consists of rather standard and uninteresting action fare. Likewise, the film fails to convey the magic of the Brazilian carnival. The parade is wisely chosen as the place of the grand finale, but unfortunately this is cut short in favor of one taking place on a plane. This makes sense in forcing Blu to fly (but nonetheless his sudden ability to do so feels more magical than natural), but also feels like a missed opportunity.

Apart from all story problems, ‘Rio’ also suffers from all too generic designs. Nothing in the film breathes particularly ‘Blue Sky’ and the film has none of the character ‘Ice Age’ (2002) and ‘Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!’ (2008) had. Moreover, the human designs and animation are surprisingly weak in this film. I particularly disliked the design of Linda, and the animation of Fernando, which looked disappointingly wooden. These straight characters fair less well than the broad comic ones, like the two henchmen Tipa and Armando, who are much more delightful to watch.

In all, ‘Rio’ is a too mediocre and too generic film to become an all-time classic. Instead, the film is a good example of the lazy, trope-driven plots and more and more common designs that started to overtake American animated feature film making during the 2010s.

Watch the trailer for ‘Rio’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Rio’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: November 25, 1932
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko the Clown, Louis Armstrong
Rating: ★★★
Review:

I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You © Max FleischerThere are few classic cartoons that will give such a mixed feeling as ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You’.

There’s much to say for it: the short is one of the wonderful pre-code swing cartoons, featuring no less than the great Louis Armstrong, who appears here in person, not only in the introduction, but also as a floating head, in a remarkable blending of animation and live action.

Unfortunately, ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You’ is also one of those ignorant cartoons featuring severe caricatures of black people, in their most cliche form: cannibals. Even worse, in this cartoon a direct connection is made between the backward caricatures and the black performers, as one of the cannibals grows into Louis Armstrong’s singing head, and his drummer (probably Tubby Hall) is likened to another big-lipped cannibal. Thus this cartoon is as entertaining as it is offensive.

There’s not much of a story: Betty, Bimbo and Koko are on a safari in dark Africa. There they encounter a tribe of hungry cannibals, who kidnap Betty. Then we cut to Bimbo and Koko on their aimless search for Betty. Soon they’re followed by a cannibal who morphs into a giant floating native head, which turns into that of Louis Armstrong singing the title song. Bimbo and Koko manage to rescue Betty with help of a porcupine. The last shot is for Louis Armstrong and his band. The complete cartoon is rather nonsensical, but Armstrong’s hot jazz make it a great ride, if an uncomfortable one.

Watch ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 7
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop for President
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop’s Museum

‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 September 2, 1930
Rating: ★★
Review:

Monkey Melodies © Walt Disney

The Silly Symphonies were to be a series of great innovation, but in 1930 this was not so clear, yet, as the entries of that year were mostly preoccupied with dance routines.

The ‘innovation’ of ‘Monkey Melodies’, for example, is the embryonic story of its second half. But only with ‘Playful Pan‘ from the end of the year, some real experimentation was to kick in.

‘Monkey Melodies’ opens with monkeys, apes and parrots frolicking in the jungle in a long dance routine. After several minutes we follow two monkeys in love, who frolic to the tune of Rudy Wiedoeft’s Narcissus. The two go on a boat ride on a log, and manage to escape a crocodile, a hippo, a snake and a leopard.

‘Monkey Melodies’ is a very standard Silly Symphony, typical of 1930, the ‘story’ of the second half notwithstanding, and to be frank, the short is rather dull. Its highlight may be the effect animation of a crocodile swimming under water.

Watch ‘Monkey Melodies’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 13

To the previous Silly Symphony: Midnight in a Toy Shop
To the next Silly Symphony: Winter

‘Monkey Melodies’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies’

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date:
 November 15, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse
Rating:
Review:

Jungle Rhythm © Walt Disney‘Jungle Rhythm’ opens with Mickey playing the harmonica while riding an elephant, the design of which is still rooted in the silent era.

Mickey shoots a vulture, but misses and is soon threatened by a bear and a lion. Luckily at that moment a monkey and a parrot start playing a tune on his harmonica, and a long dance routine can begin…

First we watch Mickey dancing with the lion and the bear, then two monkeys. Then Mickey plays the saxophone with two ostriches dancing. Mickey plays the whiskers of a little leopard like a harp, while a lion dances the hula, and he even returns to ‘Turkey in the Straw’, the tune that made him famous in his first sound cartoon ‘Steamboat Willie‘ (1928). After playing’Yankee Doodle’ on five tigers, a number of apes and a lion, the crowd applauds, and the cartoon ends.

‘Jungle Rhythms’ is easily one of the most boring entries among the early Mickey Mouse shorts: there’s no plot, no dialogue, no song, and the dance routines resemble the worst in contemporary Silly Symphonies. In fact, to me, ‘Jungle Rhythm’, together with ‘When The Cat’s Away‘ and ‘The Castaway‘ (1931), forms the worst trio of all Mickey Mouse cartoons. Luckily, weak cartoons like these remained a rarity within the series.

Watch ‘Jungle Rhythm’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 13
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Jazz Fool
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Haunted House

Director: unknown
Release Date: December 15, 1925
Stars: Virginia Davis (Alice), Julius
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Still from 'Alice in the Jungle' featuring four ferocious lionsAlice (Virginia Davis) and her friend Julius the cat are on a safari in the jungle.

The cartoon consists of several unrelated gags: Julius encounters some crocodiles, two elephants go bathing, Julius makes a barber sign post out of a tiger’s tail, and both Alice and Julius are chased by lions (a scene similar to the finale of Alice’s pilot cartoon).

The cartoon contains many surreal gags, a lot of them unashamedly Felix the Cat-like, especially when Julius uses his comic expressions and balloons as tools. Alice’s role, however, is extremely limited here. This is no surprise, for ‘Alice in the Jungle’  is made around leftover footage of Virginia Davis, who, after some salary problems, had been replaced by Margie Gay in early 1925.

Watch ‘Alice in the Jungle’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Alice in the Jungle’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: March 28, 1936
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Elmer Elephant © Walt Disney‘Elmer Elephant’ is a beautiful cartoon. It’s full of cute animals, but despite its cuteness it never becomes cloying. Based on an idea by story artist Bianca Majolie, its storyline is very straightforward and really heartfelt, like the best of Disney’s works.

Elmer visits the birthday party of one of his jungle friends, the extremely cute girl tiger Tilly. He appears to be her favorite guest, but all the other animals (including some non-tropical foxes) mock him because of his trunk, singing “your nose is like a rubber hose”. Moreover they bully and taunt him and send him away.

Unhappy, Elmer wanders through the jungle, but then he encounters even stranger-looking animals: an old giraffe and three Jimmy Durante-like pelicans, who comfort him a little. Then, suddenly, there’s a fire in Tillie’s tree hut. Elmer comes to the rescue, and with help of his nose and of his new odd friends he saves Tillie from the anthropomorphized flames. Thus being the hero of the day he wins Tillie’s love, displayed by a kiss.

Elmer Elephant has the looks of a storybook. It’s beautifully animated, with lots of shadows, and it has well-designed characters. Especially the hippo, who has an absurdly low voice, is a wonderful character. It’s both surprising and a shame that no other cartoon has been made with these cute characters in their beautiful jungle forest,  although Elmer and Tilly have a cameo appearance in ‘Toby Tortoise Returns‘.

Of course, the idea of a kind elephant being mocked for a handicap would later return in ‘Dumbo’ (1941), making ‘Elmer Elephant’ its immediate predecessor.

Watch ‘Elmer Elephant’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 59
To the previous Silly Symphony: Broken Toys
To the next Silly Symphony: Three Little Wolves

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