Directed by Kirk DeMicco and Brandon Jeffords.
Featuring the voice talents of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Juan de Marcos González, Gloria Estefan, Ynairaly Simo, Zoe Saldana, Michael Rooker, Brian Tyree Henry, Nicole Byer, and Leslie David Baker.
Vivo, a one-of-kind kinkajou, must find his way from Havana to Miami in order to deliver a song on behalf of his beloved owner and mentor, Andrés.
Although Lin-Manuel Miranda is not the director of Vivo (that credit belongs to Kirk DeMicco and Brandon Jeffords) or one of the screenplay writers (Quiara Alegria Hudes working from a story concept by Peter Barsocchini), the long-gestating animated feature from Netflix (yet another purchase from Sony’s animation division) shares his storytelling DNA beyond just the musical numbers (which are all new songs from the Hamilton artist).
Familiar beatbox-style rapping opens the movie, as we are introduced to a kinkajou (a rainforest honey bear voiced by Lin-Manuel Miranda) and his inseparable human best friend Andrés (Juan de Marcos González), playing street music together inside a Cuban marketplace for all to hear. The number, aside from being catchy and announcing that, if nothing else, there are some excellent songs in-store from one of the most likable, talented, and creative musicians working today, gives a brief exposition on this friendship while also demonstrating that while these two are unable to communicate with each other verbally, they can understand one another through rhythm and beats and music’s universal language.
Music functioning as freedom of expression and connective tissue is nothing necessarily new for Lin-Manuel Miranda, but Vivo differs because it’s primarily a tale of love. Specifically, it’s about Andrés’ regret for never letting out his true feelings towards his former musical partner Marta Sandoval (Gloria Estefan) before she departed to Miami to successfully pursue a full-time career. He loved her, but he also didn’t want that to hold her back from realizing her dreams and didn’t envision a life for himself outside Cuba. It’s a noble and selfless inner sacrifice but possibly one that was unnecessary, withholding his romantic feelings out of fear. Nevertheless, 60 years later, a letter has come from Marta inviting Andrés to Miami to perform together.
Naturally, Andrés sees this as a second chance, an opportunity to reconnect and finally spill out his heart. Meanwhile, Vivo seems terrified to travel anywhere beyond Cuba and wants to stick to the routine of playing music for the locals. There’s also a visit from Andrés’ niece and great-niece who conveniently live in Florida, which will help bridge some of that distance. Young Gabi (Ynairaly Simo, making her own mark as both a pleasant spin on the outcast child and energetic singer herself doing great things with the lyrics here) couldn’t be any more, unlike Andrés and Vivo. From her purple hair to a checkered tie and rebel personality and offbeat demeanor, she’s not like the other kids, although she doesn’t get down about that. One of the most memorable songs in the movie is her defiance of conformity and taking loneliness in stride, finding happiness from being her own person.
It should also go without saying that Gabi’s musical taste and expression also vastly differ, giving Vivo a new challenge in bonding and making the journey. Without saying much, it’s a two-person quest that contains detours to the Everglades (including a quirky Python voiced by Michael Rooker) and run-ins with Girl Scout troops trying to take Vivo away for quarantine. Gabi doesn’t see eye to eye much with her mother Rosa (Zoe Saldana) and turns out to have much more in common with Vivo, so there is some depth to the dynamic as they rush a critical piece of sheet music all the way to Marta.
The songs are all fine (occasionally, the animation style will even change for them). It’s fitting that most characters are looking for love in some way (Brian Tyree Henry has an amusing small role as a romantically awkward bird searching for a partner) with their own musical inclinations. Still, the first and last 15 minutes of Vivo are more thoughtful and heartrending. In contrast, everything in the middle is good-natured humor and diversions that pale compared to those storytelling highs. It’s not a frustrating experience, but some of the impact is lost from that tonal shift. Throughout most of Vivo, it’s easy for everything aside from the music to register as noise until the proceedings become meaningful again.
To be fair, Vivo does have something beautiful to say about the unifying power of music and its ability to allow people and memories to live on forever. There’s also a good message about speaking your feelings and what’s in your heart, as nothing hurts more than living with no knowledge of what could have been. Still, the execution is a bit too formulaic and upbeat for its own good. It’s a film that wants to achieve that Pixar-level emotional devastation but is also content settling for something safe and average that’s able to coast along by more great music from Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com