Ever since Pixar launched its campaign of world domination, other studios have been trying, and mostly failing, to catch up. It's a bit like being a playwright in England around the late-16th, early-17th century; even your best efforts will go unheralded amid the fuss over Shakespeare's new one. But recently there have been fantastic digimations from outside the Pixar stable, including last year's How to Train Your Dragon, the trippy Johnny Depp-voiced Western Rango and now, from the makers of Ice Age, the exuberant exotic-bird comedy Rio.
There is nothing especially ingenious about the story of Blu, a domesticated macaw who has never learned to fly. This home bird is voiced, however, by Jesse Eisenberg, Oscar nominee (The Social Network), the funniest neurotic in town and an indication of the film-makers' desire to go with quality. Blu thought he was the last of the macaws, but then is taken to meet his female counterpart Jewel (Anne Hathaway), unhappily captive down in Rio de Janeiro. These birds may be of a feather, but their introduction isn't promising: he's twitchy and timorous, she's a feisty miss who wants out of her cage. Then – caramba! – the pair get kidnapped by lowlife smugglers, make an escape and fall into the busy whirligig of life that is Rio at Carnival time.
From its opening bird chorus in the jungle to the swooping aerial shots of the city, the film bewitches the eye with its movement and colour. It's always on the go, yet never seems to be trying too hard. In a zippy supporting cast there's much to enjoy in the matchmaking toucan, a serenading canary (with a bottle-top for a hat) and a gang of thieving monkeys, whose chief wears a gold wristwatch around his waist, like a prizefighter's belt. The wild card, though, and the best reason to see the film, is the villainous cockatoo Nigel, voiced with delectable malice by Jemaine Clement. Nigel, an ex-soap opera star who lost his role years ago to a younger, prettier parakeet named Patricius ("a common Paraguayan name"), now wears the furious, dishevelled look of a bird with a grudge.
His story comes out in a wonderfully droll song, co-written by Clement, that brags of his unregenerate wickedness: "I'm a feathery freak with a beak/ A bird murderer/ You think you're better than me?/ I never heard of ya." I'd watch the whole thing again just to hear him loftily dismiss the monkeys and their stolen bling: "Your burgled baubles bore me." George Sanders couldn't have said it better.
The story settles into well-worn grooves as the two macaws, chained to one another by the ankle, reach for a more lasting bond amid the chaos. Yet even when the invention droops its high spirits never flag, and the leads – Eisenberg in particular – charm us all the way to the finale. No, not Pixar standard yet, but Rio will more than do for now.
I thought of Farley Granger, who died last week, while watching The Roommate. Granger's keynote performance was in Hitchcock's fiendish Strangers on a Train (1951), one of the earliest and finest examples of thrillers in which a seeming charmer – the brilliant Robert Walker in this case – turns out to be the protagonist's worst nightmare ("criss-cross!"). In the 60 years since, the genders have changed, and the degree of sexual interest, too, from the spurned psychotic single woman (Play Misty for Me, Fatal Attraction) to the parasitic bi-curious battening of Jennifer Jason Leigh on Bridget Fonda in Single White Female. But none has ever come close to edging Granger and Walker as those calamitously mismatched strangers.