It doesn't matter how impressive the animation, nor how starry the voice talent; if there's not a solid, involving story to back it all up, you're wasting everyone's time
RIO (U) **
DIRECTED BY: CARLOS SALDANHA
VOICES: JESSE EISENBERG, ANNE HATHAWAY, GEORGE LOPEZ, LESLIE MANN, JAMIE FOXX
MARS NEEDS MOMS (U) **
DIRECTED BY: SIMON WELLS
STARRING: SETH GREEN, JOAN CUSACK, DAN FOGLER, ELISABETH HARNOIS
IF THE last decade bore witness to a new golden age of animation fuelled by rapidly evolving advances in digital technology, the downside of its subsequent any-studio-can-do-it ubiquity can be seen in the latest releases vying for the attention of undiscerning family audiences over the Easter holidays. Both Rio, the new film from Fox's Blue Sky studio, makers of Ice Age, and Mars Needs Moms, the latest from Disney, demonstrate the problems inherent in making glossy, slickly produced, action-packed adventures at a time when every new release features the kind of visual feats that until a few years ago would have left audiences scooping their jaws from the floor. Neither really strives to do anything more than tread water. As a result, neither lingers in the memory much beyond the end credits.
Rio's chief problem is that it's a victim of its own generic success. It's the story of Blu, a rare macaw domesticated over the years in wintry Minnesota by Linda (Leslie Mann), a timid, bookish girl who has grown into a timid, bookish woman. According to the rules of any half-decent anthropomorphic animated adventure, Blu's personality has been shaped by his surrounding environment, which means that instead of learning to fly, our avian hero has developed a love of literature, an ability to do fist bumps and taste for hot chocolate with marshmallows. He has also acquired human neuroses of his owner, something that spirited vocal work by Jesse Eisenberg (back in the lovable nerd mode of Zombieland after putting the "eek" in geek in The Social Network) manages to transform into an endearing character trait. This (along with Flight of the Conchords star Jemaine Clement's dastardly turn as a villainous cockatoo called Nigel), is one of the few genuine pleasures in Rio, mainly because it helps distract from the overly literal spread-your-wings theme of the story, which sees Blu cast out into the chaos of Rio de Janeiro after Linda is talked into taking him to Brazil so that he might mate with a female (Anne Hathaway) and preserve his endangered species.
Bolting a bickering rom-com scenario onto its Madagascar-esque return-to-nature plot, Rio is certainly bright enough and fast enough to act as a diversion for younger children, but its sleek professionalism is also blandly predictable.
Films such as the lovely How to Train Your Dragon and the oddball Rango have thrived recently because they've valued bold and inventive storytelling in addition to beautiful visuals. Rio is passable as a polished piece of animation, but that's not really good enough any more.
Which brings us to Mars Needs Moms, which aside from the irritation caused by retaining the title's American spelling for its British release, offers yet more proof that performance capture is a terrible idea when it comes to making fully animated feature films. There's no telling producer Robert Zemeckis, though. As with his other forays into animation (Polar Express, Beowulf and his previous collaboration with Disney, A Christmas Carol), the human characters in Mars Needs Moms suffer from that creepy dead-eyed look that comes from digitising actors' performances and trying to replicate their every tic and expression in animated form.
Joan Cusack has certainly never looked more inappropriately weird. She's the basis for one of the titular in-demand "moms" and her features, particularly that great pointy chin, are vaguely discernable in the pixelated visage of her character, a harassed suburban housewife who is trying to prevent her son - and the film's hero - Milo (Seth Green) from becoming a spoiled brat by making him do his chores and eat his vegetables. Of course Milo being a boisterous kid, doesn't appreciate his mother - until Martians kidnap her for the express purpose of extracting her loving maternal instincts (with a potentially fatal brain-sucking device) and using them to programme a race of nanny-bots to raise their offspring. At which point you may well question whether a film made by extracting the essence of an actor's performance and feeding it into a computer is really the most appropriate vehicle for lecturing audiences on the value of traditional parenting and proper human interaction. But even leaving aside the film-makers' stunning lack of self-awareness, Mars Needs Moms suffers from similar problems to Rio: its action beats and visuals are too anonymous and production-line perfect, and despite some of the loopiness of the premise, it fails to take any narrative risks. At one point, for instance, the finale unexpectedly threatens to go a bit Bambi, but it backs off at the last minute, too scared to have the hero experience real tragedy. Disney probably wouldn't make a film with that kind of emotional impact now. But that's probably why it acquired Pixar.