Sunday, May 22, 2011

Rio and Pirates of the Caribbean: Happy Birds & Angry Pirates

It's not yet Memorial Day, yet it seems that summer is officially here, and it's time to entertain the kiddies.

Rio - Fox's animated entry voiced by Jesse Eisenberg (of Social Network fame) and Anne Hathaway as a pair of rare, Brazilian macaws who are captured by bird pirates and have to find their way back home, gives a feathered furry of a try, replete with tail-feather-shaking musical numbers dropped into the plot (the characters completely stop whatever they are doing when it's time for a song).

The story arc of Rio seems to have been lifted from Pixar's Up: A sentimental opening coda leads to a set-in-their ways pair (Linda, a bookstore owner, who fawns adoringly over her super smart - almost puppy seeming - pet Macaw, Blue) who are interrupted in life by an overly obsequious busy-body (in this case, a Brazilian ornithologist who wants to mate Blue with the only remaining macaw - a beauty whose personality more resembled that of a Shrew - named Jewel). Off the trio go on a misadventures and misfortune, only to learn about love, friendship, and independence. In these days of Pixar, Tron, and Avatar, the animation feels no more advanced than a 1970's Saturday morning cartoon. A few flying shots when Blue finally figures out how to aerodynamically accelerate himself (love and faith are the key) have a fun freedom, but most of the dance numbers hardly make a step forward from the original Mickie Mouse Barn Dance.

More remarkable that this movie - which has all the inspiration of a video game interstitial - is the mobile app it's paired with, Rovio's Angry Birds. The app is quite a sensation (200 million downloads, which has to be a quantum leap above the audience for this movie). One imagines that app is more entertaining than the movie, which spends most of its time on three-year-old monkey jokes. Rio does have a fey and menacing bad guy in the form of a big white parakeet named Nigel (voiced by Jemaine Clement), as well as the voice of Tracy Morgan behind a big sloppy bulldog, but neither of these assets is well exploited. They got a lot of names into this movie, but it's Rovio, the studio behind Angry Birds, who brings any kind of technical panache, and that, unfortunately, can only be experienced on your phone.

Meanwhile, Disney's fourth attempt at a Pirates movie (On Stranger Tides) finally gets the formula right. Back again is seemingly perpetually anachronistically stoned Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), as well as a few favorites like Pirate Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), as well as a few hardy newcomers (Penelope Cruz, and a marvelously gruff Ian McShane as Blackbeard).

All motion is set in action when the Spanish king discovers the whereabouts of the fountain of youth, and tells his Admiral to set sail. The English king can't let the Spanish best him at the discovery, and so Jack Sparrow is entreated to go after the Spanish. Jack has his own ideas, however, and soon finds himself running from the English (led by Barbossa) and joining camp with Blackbeard and Cruz, as his daughter, as they all race for the treasure of immortality.

This Pirates is directed by Rob Marshall, rather than Gore Verbinksi - who directed the first three - and I must say, what an improvement. While I found the other Pirates glib to the point of being impossible to follow, and full of dead spaces and useless dialogue, this one is all economy and forward action. By this point, Depp has mined all the ironic postmodern gestures in the character and has settled in to a kind of aging, perpetually pubescent swashbuckler who simply wants to pilot a ship again. Meanwhile, Rush and McShane chew the scenery ferociously, and a strong dose of sincerity in the form of a handsome missionary in love with a beautiful young mermaid keeps the emotions anchored. Marshall keeps everyone moving forward towards the fountain and never slows down the pace - from daring escapes to flying sword fights - as the characters race across the seas.

I'm still not that big a fan of the series - as far as pirates go, these are about as mechanical as the Disney ride they're based on. But if I had to pick a pop-corn munching Saturday matinee for the kids, filled with daring escapes, fun bon mots, and exotic locales, this one far outstrips its birdbrained companion.

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