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Natalie Morales flies high as a news reporter in 'Rio 2'

by Gael Fashingbauer Cooper /  / Updated 

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It's the perfect role for TODAY's Natalie Morales: In "Rio 2," which opens Friday, she plays a news reporter (she's already got that down) with Brazilian roots (her mother is Brazilian and she lived in Rio from ages 7 to 10). And to top it off, Morales was able to be part of a film franchise that her two sons — Josh, 10, and Luke, 5 — already loved.

"My kids watched (the original 'Rio') hundreds of times, so when the film's creator asked if I would like to be a character I was beyond thrilled," Morales said. 

While her role is a small one, you may recognize some gestures. The animation department at Blue Sky Studios welcomed her involvement, even allowing her to come up with a few of her own lines, and incorporated Morales' mannerisms and facial expressions into her cartoon character. (Look for her eyebrows rising as she reads a news story.)

Does "Rio 2" soar like the original? Will "Frozen" leave preschoolers cold? Is "Maleficent" as scary as its trailers? Here's one parent's guide to more than 50 recent children's films.

In the first film, Brazilian-born Blu, a rare Spix's Macaw, leaves his cozy bookstore home in Minnesota for the bright colors and flavors of Rio. And in "Rio 2," the birds set out for the Amazon rain forest, finding unexpected family when they do so. Brazil is depicted as a colorful, flower- and bird-filled tropical paradise, and Morales appreciated that the setting was really another character in the movie.

"I absolutely love how both 'Rio' and 'Rio 2' have so beautifully portrayed the country and its incredible culture," she said. "From its music, customs and its spectacular geography, the films really bring Brazil to life." The film's creator, Brazilian Carlos Saldanha, also incorporated the musical beats of his native land, under the direction of Brazil's most famous musician, Sergio Mendes.

To go with its warm-weather setting, "Rio 2" has a warm message. "I love how the film is really all about fitting in, finding family and your place in the world," Morales said. "Blu struggles to fit in in the Amazon rain forest with his fanny pack and GPS. He has to prove to his father-in-law (Andy Garcia) that he is cut out for the Amazon."

And the film also gets two very important thumbs-up from Morales' sons. "Both loved the film very much, and it did win me coolest mom points for a day," she shared.

Follow Gael Fashingbauer Cooper on Google+.

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