In roughly the last year, the world has celebrated the past works of award-winning songwriter and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda with the filmed releases of Hamilton and In the Heights, but for the first time in a while, the world gets to take a look at something new from him with the release of the animated musical Vivo, about a singing kinkajou (described in the press notes as a rainforest “honey bear,” voiced by Miranda), who spends his days in Cuba performing as a musical act with his elderly owner Andrés (Buena Vista Social Club’s Juan de Marcos). One thing should be made clear: Vivo is not a talking/singing animal; we, the audience, hear him talk and sing, but the rest of the world hears him squeak, which weirdly doesn’t seem to hinder his ability to communicate at all.
When Andrés receives a letter from his former singing partner, the now-famous Marta Sandoval (Gloria Estefan), asking him to join her on stage for her final live performance, he digs out an old song her wrote for her decades earlier that confesses his true feelings for her and decides to bring it to Miami to present to her. But the next morning, tragedy strikes, and it’s up to Vivo to get to Miami and deliver the message for his beloved owner. Vivo is a little naive about the ways of the world, but he does manage to sneak back to Miami in the luggage of Andrés’ only family, including Rosa (Zoe Saldaña) and her daughter Gabi (newcomer Ynairaly Simo), a tween who’s not the greatest singer but has a passion for music that matches Vivo’s. And when Gabi figures out Vivo’s plan, they sneak off and head to Miami together.
Vivo is meant to be about the power of music as a means of expression, a source of healing, and a way to bridge communication gaps. Miranda’s songs are, for the most part, really catchy and full of life, even if they are occasionally over produced and sometimes a bit too polished for this ragged little movie. But with Miranda as the sole songwriter, the film takes on more of a Hollywood musical quality than your average animated offerings with a handful of pop tunes thrown in. Miranda accentuates the Cuban beats and rhythms quite nicely, and a couple of his songs feature his signature rapping/singing combination that tends to elevate the proceedings when necessary. The opening number, in particular, is the perfect rousing opening number the film needs.
Vivo also features spirited voice work from Michael Rooker as Lutador, a massive Everglades python who demands silence in his corner of the swamp and will eat anything that makes too much noise. Befriending Vivo to escape Lutador are a pair of lovey-dovey spoonbills (Brian Tyree Henry and Nicole Byer), and pursuing the runaway Gabi are three overzealous young scouts (Katie Lowes, Olivia Trujillo, and Lidya Jewett), from a troop Gabi was supposed to join until she bailed. The film’s behind-the-scenes lineage is impressive.
It’s directed by Kirk DeMicco (The Croods), co-directed by Brandon Jeffords (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2), and written by Quiara Alegria Hudes (In the Heights), so the building blocks for something exhilarating are certainly in place, even if the movie doesn’t always come together when it’s delivering its messages of unlikely friendships and finding the strength and courage to try new things. The colors and visual language of Vivo are perhaps its strongest qualities, especially the surrealistic, neon-soaked landscapes of Miami at night and the exaggerated qualities of the trip through the Everglades. We’ll have other chances before the end of the year to experience Miranda in different roles, including his directing of and more original songs in the Disney animated film Encanto, and his directing of an adaptation of the musical tick, tick…Boom!, (with a book by the late Jonathan Larson, creator of Rent). But Vivo is a worthy placeholder that should hold the attention of younger audiences, while setting feet dancing for older viewers.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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