RIO DE JANEIRO — Sunny beaches, soccer balls and samba beats: Brazilian director Carlos Saldanha's newest 3-D animation feature, "Rio," is a tribute to his home town's natural beauty and upbeat approach to life.
Saldanha left Rio more than 20 years ago to try his luck as an animator in the United States. After scoring hits such as "Ice Age," the director returned to his roots to tell the story of the rare blue macaw, Blu, who was born in Brazil but raised in frigid Minnesota, where he never learned to fly.
In the movie, which opens in Brazil on Tuesday and on April 15 in the United States, Blu travels to Rio de Janeiro after his owners learn that a female blue macaw has been discovered there. Blu, voiced by Jesse Eisenberg, meets the spunky Jewel, voiced by Anne Hathaway.
Together they escape animal traffickers, get in a brawl with monkeys, and fall in love as Blu learns to fly and rediscovers himself among sweeping views of the city.
"This is a beautiful present to Rio de Janeiro," said Brazilian singer Bebel Gilberto, who, as the voice of a toucan in the movie, had to sing "The girl from Ipanema" off-key — something she says was very difficult. The sound track included will.i.am as well as Brazilian musicians Carlinhos Brown and Sergio Mendes.
Actress Anne Hathaway jumped in during the press conference and told Gilberto she was one of the reasons for her love of Brazil. Hathaway joined the project about three years ago, she said.
Watching it develop from an idea of Saldanha's through days spent in a dark room giving life to a character she'd never seen to finally seeing the feature and now the city that inspired it has been "the most wonderful journey," she said.
The idea for the movie started long before the cast was assembled, Saldanha said. Ten years ago, living in the United States, he started dreaming of making a movie about the city he loved, and which he felt most people didn't really know.
"I wanted to make a movie about the vibe of Rio," Saldanha said.
He wondered how that would be possible with an American cast — but said he was extremely happy with the passion and the commitment shown by Hathaway, Eisenberg, Jamie Foxx, Jemain Clement, and Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro.
"At the end of the day, the vision of these guys, the imagination of these guys, made it," he said.
Saldanha's connection to the place and the story, which somewhat parallels his own, came through and was inspiring to the crew, said Eisenberg.
"This movie is also very personal to him," he said. "The things he'd discuss, where the scenes take place, always felt very important to him. It made the experience of standing in a dark room feel very real, very significant."
One of the challenges, Saldanha said, was showing a Rio that was accessible to those who've never seen the city, but that still felt authentic to those who know it well.
"I hope this movie does it justice," he said.
He did concede to making one change in his portrayal of the city to suit foreign audiences: a small readjustment to the size of Brazil's notoriously small bikinis in the movie's animated beachscapes.
"You cannot show everything," he said. "This movie was made for the world. I had to adjust. But at the end of the day, everything is as authentic as it can be."