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.