Rio 2 is director’s love letter to Amazon

IN the last ten years, the success of his animated movies including Ice Age, Robots and Rio have made Brazilian producer/director Carlos Saldanha a force to be reckoned with at the box-office.

The blue macaws of Rio 2. Picture: Contributed

Rio is especially close to Saldanha’s heart, a valentine to his birthplace, as seen through the eyes of Blu, a domesticated blue macaw, voiced by Jesse Eisenberg, who leaves the comfort of his cage and finds new wings at Rio de Janeiro’s famous Carnivale, when he’s teamed up with feisty Jewel (Anne Hathaway)

Rio 2 pushes the territory a little further, with Blu and Jewel taking their young family into the Amazonian rainforest, where they discover a long-lost father-in-law (Andy Garcia) and Jewel’s overachieving ex-beau (musician Bruno Mars). Pursuing them is a vengeful cockatoo (Jermaine Clements) and his new toxic frog sidekick (Kristin Chenworth).

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SS: Why the Amazon?

CS: For one thing, I didn’t want to repeat myself, but also Brazil isn’t just Rio and the Amazon is a place that is foreign even to Brazilians. I had never been there myself before I decided to make Rio 2, and I lived in Brazil for half my life. We had to do a lot of research into the look, the trees and the animals. What sort of bugs were scary, how humid it can get. And I took my family.

Did your children appreciate the chance to go on a holiday with no wifi and plenty of nature?

They were not very interested at first. The first things they asked was “What kind of bugs do they have there?” But it was one of the best family vacations we had. We swam with dolphins in the river, and they went into the water even though five minutes earlier we had been fishing there for piranhas.

Are you a big birdwatcher, or is it blue macaws in particular that fascinate you?

No, originally I read a newspaper article about penguins coming to the beaches of Rio because their flocks got lost in a little stream. It was quite appealing, the idea of cold-water birds adapting to a hot place like Brazil and my children used to play with penguins in the summer. So I had an idea about a penguin having his heart warmed up in Rio. But then suddenly there were a lot of animated movies starring penguins like Madagascar and Happy Feet, so the studio said no to penguins and I had to think again.

How hard is it to animate birds?

It is difficult because they come down to eyes and beak. Macaws are practically all beak, and their eyes are set apart, we had to work hard to make them expressive.

Did you expect Nigel, the hammy performing cockatoo played by New Zealander Jemaine Clement, to be such a hit with audiences?

You never know what character is going to register with audiences. When we did Ice Age, we had a woolly mammoth, a sabre -toothed tiger and a sloth as our main characters but it was the little Scrat [a prehistoric squirrel] that everyone wanted to see more of. With Rio, it was Nigel.

I had always admired Jemaine and Flight of the Conchords so I wrote Nigel especially for him. The moment where he sings I Will Survive is one of my favourite moments in the movie.

It’s a version that should give Gloria Gaynor sleepless nights. And even more surprising since it looked as if Nigel was an ex-cockatoo by the end of the last film?

We left it quite ambiguous [laughs] Jemaine was unusual, because when we do casting we usually have about five voices for each character, because we never know if the person will accept it, and sometimes those voices don’t work out. But, for example, when Jesse Eisenberg came in to record for the first time, I was struggling with that character because I had a very specific way I wanted him to feel, and when Jesse came in and opened his mouth, I said, “That’s my Blu.”

Also unexpected is Bruno Mars, making his acting debut here as a bit of a smooth operator in the macaw world.

Yes, I had originally thought Roberto would be quite a macho character but then I saw Bruno on Saturday Night Live and I thought he was very charming, but also very funny. When we cast him, we changed Roberto so he was more like Bruno. And originally he did not sing, but Bruno played us a song he had written with his writing partner Philip Lawrence, and it got us so excited that we changed the film so that Roberto became a singer too.

With Brazil hosting the World Cup, was a football scene in this film inevitable?

Actually, I had the idea when we were doing the first one, but we couldn’t find a place for it. But soccer is very important to Brazil and I liked the idea that Blu still doesn’t fit in, so when they pick teams for soccer, he’s the last person to be chosen for a team.

Are you thinking about Rio 3?

You know, I have four children. After the first one I never asked when we could have another because there was so much pain. I’m still working through my birthing pain with Rio 2, but once this baby is out, we’ll see.

• Rio 2 is in cinemas nationwide; read our review here