Special guest star Apperance by Rio de Janeiro

While most of 2011 has been dismally cold for new releases, Fox’s animated film Rio, currently with $114.9 million at the domestic box office, and Universal’s Fast Five, which is set in Rio de Janeiro and launched with a staggering $86 million take last weekend, show that what moviegoers really need is a little heat.

After its second weekend, Fast Five has scored $139.9 million domestically and is No. 1 internationally with $325 million.

“People are coming off a real winter,” says Universal Studios co-chair Donna Langley. “We are able to offer them a chance to travel to an exotic locale.”

While she calls it “a coincidence” that two major films are set in the same location and were released around the same time, Langley adds that the decision to base Fast Five in Rio was calculated. Though the studio considered shooting the movie in Spain, Germany and even Moscow, the sunny locale won out.

“It’s just one of those places that people have fantasies about,” she says.

Throughout film history, the boisterous city — with its Carnival festival, beautiful beaches and tanned bodies— has proven a dependable backdrop.

Rio begins in frigid Moose Lake, Minn., before the exotic bird tale travels south to a brilliant landscape of rain forests and musical city scenes. It’s a landscape that director Carlos Saldanha knows intimately after growing up in the Brazilian city before moving to the USA 20 years ago.

“Rio might be the unknown for a lot of people, but it’s the exotic unknown,” he says. “It definitely has the ‘ooh’ factor.”

It also has a diverse tapestry for different types of films appealing to different sets of moviegoers.

“There are so many elements to tap into in Rio,” says Saldanha. “My movie is a colorful, happy, musical-driven kind of story. Fast Five taps into the pop, the action — the good guys vs. the bad guys.”

Rio, with its gritty history of slums, crooked cops and brutal crime lords, provides ample fodder for storytelling. Fast director Justin Lin says there was little need to dramatize the dangers in the city’s shantytowns, or favelas. Before filming, he and colleagues tested some of the more infamous places.

“You wouldn’t be a block in when it was very clear you were not welcome,” says Lin. “People would be flashing guns and cellphoning others.”

He admits their adventure “wasn’t the smartest thing to do.” Other areas were so dangerous that even passing overhead in a helicopter was a no-go. The crew eventually filmed scenes in two less-dangerous favelas.

“That took some time,” he says. “We had to make sure we were invited in. It’s not something you want to push your way into.”

However, Rio’s selection to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics is spurring a positive transformation, says Saldanha. “The city is rediscovering itself in a way that goes well beyond the old headlines and bad news,” he says.

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