The Movie RIO Opened This Weekend

I don’t go out to movies often. I usually wait for them to come out on Netflix, but I have been anticipating the release of RIO for months now, for all the obvious reasons. I had read that the director and animators had studied wild, captive and companion birds in depth to make the stars of this film as true to life as possible without alienating the non-bird people (like we really care). I already have 4 of the 8 available Happy Meal toys from McDonald’s.

I bought my ticket outside the theater and the girl in the box office looked around me to see how many kids I was escorting. I grinned and said: “Just one, please.” I walked into the lobby determined not to indulge in anything from the concession counter on principal because I so object to the prices. I caved 10 feet inside the door. What is it about the smell of popcorn?

I opted to see a matinee on this first Sunday of the movie’s opening. I wouldn’t normally, intentionally, put myself in a closed room with a horde of over-excited and sugar-deluged kids (as much as I do love children), but as this is a movie that targets children and was said to carry strong messages about the wild bird trade and conservation, I wanted to see how this message was received.

The story centers around about “Blu”, a wild caught macaw, who comes into the care of Linda who lives in Minnesota. One day, the two are visited by a South American Ornithologist, Tulio, who informs Linda that Blu is the last remaining male macaw of his species in existence (his species is referred to simply as the “blue macaw”). He has in captivity, in Rio De Janeiro, the last remaining female (Jewel), and encourages Linda to bring Blu to Rio to participate in a breeding program. Linda is overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility, and finally agrees. A group of illegal smugglers catches wind of the pair of birds, and knowing they are worth a lot of money, breaks into the facility where they are being housed. The efforts of the smugglers are assisted by a filthy, desperately ill looking cockatoo with a big chip on his shoulder.

The story continues as flightless Blu, who has only lived in a human environment, co-mingles with the native species and learns what it means to be a bird. During his adventures, he falls in love with Jewel. Rio concludes where Linda and Blu have one final exchange before she allows him, with a mixture of joy and sadness, to make the decision to return to the wild and raise a family with Jewel.

I got very choked up during this scene as it called to mind a story I had read about a woman who made the agonizing choice to relinquish her Spix macaw, the most direly endangered of all parrots and the species that Blu and Jewel are patterned after, and who had been her long-time companion, to a breeding program because it was the right thing to do.

While keeping in mind that this movie was not intended solely for we bird aficionados, there were some flaws. Early in the movie, Blu was served hot chocolate and chocolate chip cookies as a snack. I suspect that this was intended to drive home the idea of his very “human” existence which sharply contrasted to the life of the wild birds he encountered in Brazil. Most bird people also likely noticed that there were only three toes on each foot. This was probably done intentionally. Since birds do so much with their feet, that fourth toe might have complicated the imagery when a foot was being featured.

I have to say that they did a great job of making clear the horrors of the wild bird trade, but I wish they would have touched more upon conservational issues. There were some moments that were clearly intended for people who own birds, such as the mention of “positive reinforcement” in the scene where Blu is studying how to fly and the wild bird’s amazement at his adeptness at picking locks and breaking out of cages, as well as his ability to mimic a dog to frighten off a cat.

There was a scene where one of the fledglings of Raphael, the toucan featured in the film, exhibited the bad habit of pulling out everyone’s feathers. When questioned about this behavior, Raphael said:  “Yeah, we’re having him tested”.  Everyone in the theater laughed. I was expecting the humor of that line to be missed. Apparently, more people are aware of plucking problems than I had imagined.

I enjoyed the movie and enjoyed watching the children around me giggling throughout. My one concern, which others have expressed, is that the movie might inspire an increased interest in pet birds. I’m afraid some might see only the cute and clownish personalities of the birds in the film and be touched by the close bond between Linda and Blu. It made bird ownership look blissful and effortless. I would have loved to have seen Blu dismantling the computer keyboard and wiping his beak off on Linda’s shirt. Many will miss the important message about freedom, which is what Blu ultimately chose, at the end.

Of course, this movie is a must see for parrot owners, if only because it’s ALL about parrots and their welfare. It wasn’t all I’d hoped it would be, but I did enjoy it a great deal, and I do recommend it to everyone reading.  For those of you interested, I found this cute Rio drawing tutorial which teaches you how to draw the birds from the movie.

Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.

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