Grade: B/C+
Not rated (would be PG)

Ainbo: Spirit of the Amazon follows the path of save-the-rainforest themed films like The Emerald Forest (1985, R-rated live action), Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (1992, G-rated animation), and James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). Its footsteps are more indigenous, though, which is a positive.

But having two 13-year-old girls who talk the way adult writers think 13-year-old girls talk, along with some seen-it-before characters and plot points, could narrow the audience. I’ll tell you this, though:  I’ve watched more than my share of animated features from small or start-up animation companies, and this one is far more interesting than any of them—though it too seems aimed at children first and families second.

Rather than spending their budget on big-name voice actors to try to attract an audience, the filmmakers trusted their narration and animation to do the job. It’s beautifully animated, with strong characters and plot.

Directed by José Zelada and Richard Claus, Ainbo is based on a story by Zelada, whose family spent the 1980s living in the Amazon basin, where Zelada heard stories his mother told him that he tried to incorporate into his screenplay. That’s as big of a plus as the film’s environmental and female empowerment themes.

Fittingly, this film about global concerns was an international production, with Tunche Films, Zelda’s Peruvian animation house, handling the bulk of the work in partnership with the Netherlands-based studio Cool Beans and the Dutch animation house Katuni. Produced. Distributed internationally (via TV and DVD) by Cinema Management Group, Ainbo became CMG’s biggest pre-sold animated feature since 2005’s Hoodwinked: The True Story of Little Red Riding Hood.

The dialogue isn’t quite as wink-wink smart as Hoodwinked, and the recognizable elements from other films don’t make any statements about the genre. Adults may or may not find it fun that Zelada decided to channel Disney’s Timon & Pumba in creating his own wild animal characters: a fast-talking armadillo named Dillo and his “spirit animal” pal Vaca, a tapir that, like Disney’s warthog, looks a bit like a big pig. In addition, the warrior-medicine man Atok has a build, features, and personality similar to the antagonist in the animated Road to El Dorado. Meanwhile, family members who have sat through any number of films for children will see two main characters that also seem familiar: the 13-year-old Ainbo, who dreams of becoming a great warrior-hero but is still a klutz, and her 13-year-old “bestie” Zumi, who happens to be the daughter of the chief that also raised Ainbo after her mother passed away. If it wasn’t happening in the Amazon, there would probably be a whole lot more giggling and hugging.

Ainbo is a member of a tribe named after the Candámo River in Peru, near the headwaters of the Amazon. Ainbo and Zumi are a bit more curvaceous than most 13-year-old girls, yet somehow not sexualized. The emphasis is on their friendship and their naiveté. Zumi doesn’t know how to be a king, though her ailing/aging father just passed the responsibility on to her, and Ainbo doesn’t know how to be a warrior.

But they do realze that something has to be done to stop the encroaching dangers of the logging and mining “machine” that threatens their rainforest and way of life. That danger is personified as a folk-demon called the Yacaruna, and there are times when the giant earthmoving equipment seems equally demonic. That’s the whole point, of course, and the Candámo’s existence depends upon the girls’ ability to rise to the occasion and vanquish their foe, with a little help from the all-powerful Earth-Mother spirit of the Amazon, Turtle Motelo Mama . . . and another spirit mama as well.

It’s well animated and features accomplished direction and the voice talents of Lola Raie (as Ainbo), Naomi Serrano (Yumi), Joe Hernandez (Vaca), Dino Andrade (Dillo), Susana Ballesteros (Motelo Mama), Rene Mujica (Atok, and Cornell DeWitt (the evil mining/logging company CEO).

Ainbo gives us the opportunity to show the Amazon in a more honest, authentic and faithful way—from an indigenous viewpoint,” director Zelada said. “Hopefully, it will open a window for the world to see the Amazon in new ways.”  Well, it’s certainly fascinating and refreshing to see indigenous heroes in face paint so that their look becomes as natural as their surroundings, and to have those heroes be young girls. It’s even more fascinating to know that the Ainbo was based on stories that Zelada heard from his mother. And those “animal spirit guides”? They’re really engaging and well rendered. They don’t steal the show, but they certainly hold their own.

Younger children will most certainly rate this a B or better, and odds are that they’ll want to watch it multiple times. Pity that it’s only available on DVD, but the transfer to disk is still a good one. It’s available in the U.S. from Shout! Factory.

Entire family:  Yes
Run time:  84 min. Color
Studio/Distributor:  Shout! Factory
Aspect ratio:  2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio:  English Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features:  n/a
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for peril, some violence and intense scenes

Language:  1/10—I didn’t catch anything here

Sex:  0/10—Nothing here either

Violence:  3/10—Mild compared to most films, there are still a number of scenes that deal with survival; a large mechanical monster can be frightening for small children, as can a white “shaman” who isn’t any worse than Scooby-Doo! villains but is rendered more convincingly so

Adult situations:  3/10—Characters die of natural causes and the film deals with human spirits that reappear after death; dead animals and fish turn up as the result of mining and logging operations

Takeaway:  Ainbo is quite accomplished for a small-studio production