Animated movies are most typically set in imagined places — the fairy tale land of “Shrek,” the toy box of “Toy Story.” But the new animated movie “Rio” — about a rare bird’s journey from his comfortable, domesticated life in Minnesota to the faraway exotic city of Rio de Janeiro — is a love letter from director Carlos Saldanha to his real Brazilian hometown as surely as “Manhattan” is Woody Allen‘s love letter to New York. “Rio,” which stars Jesse Eisenberg as the voice of Blu, the far-from-home macaw, and Anne Hathaway as Jewel, his wild female counterpart, depicts iconic imagery from the South American city, from its twisting coastline to its multilayered shantytowns to its famed Carnival parade. Showing the distinctive city was just part of the challenge of making “Rio,” said Saldanha, whose previous credits include the blockbuster “Ice Age” series. “It’s easy to capture the sites of Rio,” he said. “The difficult part is to capture the vibe.”
Photo: Pedro the cardinal, center, Rafael the toucan and Nico the canary give some tips on getting around in Rio, to macaws Blu, left, and Jewel in the movie “Rio.”(Blue Sky Studios / 20th Century Fox)
Life in Minnesota never required Blu to learn to fly, but he has to test his wings when a helpful toucan named Rafael, pictured, (voiced by George Lopez) leads Blu and Jewel to a popular hang-gliding spot above Rio’s distinctive coastal landscape. (Blue Sky Studios / 20th Century Fox)
“The city has a personality of its own, the mountains and the ocean so dramatically on top of each other,” Saldanha said. “You have this concrete jungle meeting the real jungle.”
Photo: A view of Pico Pan de Azucar, or Sugarloaf, the huge torpedo rock that emerges from Guanabara Bay off the Rio coast.(Douglas Engle / LATINPHOTO.org,)
The massive Christ the Redeemer statue on Rio’s Corcovado mountain is perhaps the city’s best-known site. Here a wide-eyed Blu catches a ride past it on the tip of a hang-glider’s wing. He has just survived a chase scene through a favela — one of Rio’s multilayered shantytowns — during a televised soccer match. (Blue Sky Studios / 20th Century Fox)
“Architecturally and visually [the statue is] such a unique place,” Saldanha said. (Dado Galdieri / Associated Press)
Rio’s bright yellow trolley cars provide a scene for romance for Blu and Jewel. In the film, characters also get around by cable car, moped and -- of course -- parade float. (Blue Sky Studios / 20th Century Fox)
The yellow trolley cars are a recognizable touchstone from South America’s oldest tramway.
Photo: Revelers walk along a yellow tramcar in the historic Santa Teresa neighborhood during the Heaven on Earth street parade. The parade helps usher in Brazil’s famous Carnival.(Felipe Dana / Associated Press)
One of the first jobs Saldanha assigned key crew members like his writers and cinematographer was to travel with him to Rio and march as a troupe of pink gladiators in the Brazilian city’s massive Carnival parade, a scene the film’s key characters would act out in the third act.
Photo: The Minnesota-born Linda (foreground, wearing bird headpiece) finds herself in very unfamiliar surroundings -- as the center of attention at Carnival in the movie “Rio.”(Blue Sky Studios / 20th Century Fox)
The music in “Rio” — including a new recording of Sergio Mendes’ classic bossa nova hit “Mas Que Nada” and “Hot Wings (I Wanna Party)” by Will.i.am — was as important to Saldanha as the sites in creating an authentic sense of place. “Music is our most recognizable cultural export,” Saldanha said. “Samba, funk, rap — I wanted it to be a score that would take me to Rio.” (Vanderlei Almeida / AFP / Getty Images)