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Filmmaker Carlos Saldanha talks 'Rio 2'

Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway reprise their roles in "Rio 2."
Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway reprise their roles in "Rio 2."
Twentieth Century Fox/Blue Sky Studios

Blu, Jewel, Nigel, Gabi, Luiz, Linda and Tulio return in “Rio 2,” the sequel to the hit 2011 samba-flavored animated comedy adventure about two rare blue macaws from different worlds that find true love.

Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”) reprises the voice of Blu, a nervous, domesticated bird from Minnesota, who now lives in the Brazilian capital with his more adventurous macaw bride Jewel (voiced by Oscar winner Anne Hathaway.) The movie opens with the pair enjoying domestic life with their three young ones. News of other blue macaws spotted in the country’s wild Amazon region convinces Jewel that they need to pack up the kids and discover their roots. The ever-cautious Blu reluctantly agrees to the family adventure. The trip leads to a family reunion with long lost relatives and Jewel’s old flame. Meantime, an old foe is plotting revenge against Blu and Jewel, and humans threaten to destroy the unspoiled Amazon jungle habitat.

Brazilian filmmaker Carlos Saldanha, who wrote and directed “Rio,” returns with a whole new adventure for our lovebirds. In addition to bringing back beloved characters from the original film, Saldanha has added many more characters to the mix, including Jewel’s imposing father Eduardo (voiced by Andy Garcia), former flame Roberto (voiced by singer Bruno Mars), and Broadway mainstays Kristin Chenoweth, as Gabi, a poisonous frog in love with the villainous white cockatoo Nigel and Rita Moreno, as Jewel’s fun-loving aunt Mimi.

The energetic filmmaker, whose other credits include the “Ice Age” trilogy, recently spoke about making the sequel and bringing back the old gang as well as introducing new characters and putting them into an all-new adventure on the Amazon, with lots of new songs.

“We have a returning cast: Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg, Jermaine Clement, George Lopez, Jamie Fox, Leslie Mann, and Rodrigo Santoro,” he said. “It’s great to bring them back. It’s almost like working with family again. The first movie was about finding the characters, finding the personalities we wanted to take, and that was the challenge. Now, we know them, so it’s more experimental in terms of finding the characters and taking them further.”

Sequels aren’t always easy but Saldanha said it all comes down to how to move the story and the characters forward.

“We needed to tell the story that continues to be entertaining and fun and also to find new chemistry between them,” he said. “We also added new cast members. For “Rio 2,” we expanded the cast with Andy Garcia, who plays Eduardo, who is Jewel’s father. Rita Moreno is an amazing addition to the cast. I’m a super fan of hers. I think she changed a lot of people’s lives through her career that began with “West Side Story.” Back in the day, it was very hard for somebody like her to make it in Hollywood. She’s a strong and powerful artist. She still is. She’s 82, but she has the heart of a 15-year-old girl. She’s full of energy. We also have Kristin Chenoweth, who not only is a great actress but she’s very funny and an amazing singer, who’s performed on Broadway. Bruno Mars also is an amazing singer. He plays Roberto, an old friend of Jewel’s. And Natalie Morales, a news anchor on NBC’s “Today.” She’s Brazilian, which is great. There’s a small number of Brazilians on our team. I’m one of them. And we have a few more.”

“Rio” brought the sounds of Carnival to a Hollywood animated feature for the first time. For the sequel, the filmmaker called upon his music team on the first one to give him a broader Brazilian theme.

“The big signature in the first movie, of course, was music,” he said. “We brought in Sergio Mendes, Carlinhos Brown and John Powell, the composer. The three of them together created the whole master plan of the music for the first movie. They brought a lot of Brazilian flavors to it, contemporary rhythms and a beautiful score. For “Rio 2,” we wanted more. We wanted to take this movie to the next level. We already had explored rhythms of samba, bossa nova and things that are more familiar to people that know Brazilian music. So we wanted to explore a little bit more deeper into Brazil, so we explored rhythms of the northeast. We tried to get different kind of rhythms, which is why we brought in Janelle Monae. She also writes just a beautiful, fun introduction to the movie. She writes the opening number, with some contributions by Carlinhos Brown and Sergio Mendes. Carlinhos is our percussion designer. He thinks musically with the drums. He’s the guy who allows us to make Brazil interesting for the audience. He knows every single rhythm around Brazil, and he managed to combine them in a unique way. Together with Sergio and John, he manages to create the vibe that feels authentic to Brazil but also feels like something everyone around the world can relate to and enjoy.”

Some new artists were also brought into the mix for “Rio 2,” including a percussion group growing in popularity in South America and beyond.

“The Brazilian group Barbatuques is a great addition to the movie, not only for the soundtrack, but also for the vibe of the orchestration of the movie,” said Saldanha. “They’re a band from Brazil, and what they do is body percussion. So everything they do here in the movie is done on their bodies—stomping, mouth (sounds). They’re also amazing singers so they wrote and perform their song. They originally were written in Portuguese and then it was translated into English and they perform it in English.

Having plumbed the depths of Rio’s colorful Carnival in the original animated adventure, Saldanha decided to explore the country’s other big holiday celebration—New Year’s—for the sequel.

“While the first film was set during Carnival, this one is set during New Year’s in Rio which is the second biggest celebration of the year in Brazil,” he said. “Because it’s in the southern hemisphere, this takes place during the peak of the summer season there. People celebrate by going to the beaches to have a good time. And, to me, New Year’s represents a message of hope, starting the year on the right foot. A fresh start—that’s what this movie is about: fresh, hopeful and looking forward to the future. It’s also about family, especially between Blu and Jewel, because now they have children, and they have to think about their future and what’s best for them. They are two very different birds. Jewel, the mother, is wild while Blu, the father, is domesticated. So they have to figure out what’s the best way to raise their children. That’s the dynamic we learn through their journey.”

Of course, every adventure has to have a foil, and “Rio 2” would be incomplete with the return of the egomaniacal cockatoo Nigel.

Said Saldanha, “We bring our villain back. Nigel, at the end of “Rio,” was defeated by Blu. He nearly died. He lost his ability to fly and he’s struck rock bottom, yet he still has that inner star in him. When he sees Blu flying above again, he wants to get revenge. He has two sidekicks who help him in his journey to get even with Blu and his family. One of them is Gabi, which is the voice of Kristin Chenoweth, and Charlie, an anteater that doesn’t speak. They become the dastardly trio that goes out for revenge.”

It’s not just a kooky cockatoo trying to drive Blu and Jewel apart, but an old flame with a smooth voice arises as a threat to their relationship.

“When I thought about creating a character that could steal Jewel’s heart, I initially thought it would be a tough guy with a deep voice, a classic hunk,” said Saldanha. “But I didn’t find someone that felt right for the part. So I went to a taping of “Saturday Night Live” and Bruno Mars was performing. He was really funny and charming and felt that he was a possibility, but the character wasn’t written that way I spoke with him and we did a session together, and he agreed I wasn’t that guy (as written). But I said to him, “Let’s make it you.” The reason people love him is for his voice. It’s the way he performs. He’s suave, calm and smooth. So I went back to the drawing board and decided it would work if he serenaded Jewel. So we got him back in front of the mic, and he did an a capella song. He just did a gigantic performance. I went back and played what we recorded for the animators. They loved it. Then I went back to Bruno and had him riff on it even further. Then we went back and added the extra riff he did. The character then blossomed. From there, we know who Roberto was.”

Adding comic relief to the plot is Kristin Chenoweth who provides the voice of a poisonous frog in love with Nigel.

“Part of the fun of working in this (musical animation) process is that we get amazing collaborators,” said Saldanha. “ For example, Jemaine Clement (who voices the villainous Nigel again) wrote a song (“Poisonous Love”) that he sings with Kristin Chenoweth. They blossom as this amazing, if odd couple in the story. She has this high-pitched energetic voice and he has this very dastardly, kind of fun, vicious villain approach. It’s the pinnacle of their performance when they duet together.”

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