Directed by Kirk DeMicco.
Starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ynairaly Simo, Zoe Saldana, Gloria Estefan, Juan de Marcos González, Brian Tyree Henry, Michael Rooker, Nicole Byer and Katie Lowes.
A young girl and a rare kinkajou quest across Florida to deliver a friend’s message to his former musical partner.
It’s a big year for Lin-Manuel Miranda. Hamilton is still on hard rotation on everyone’s Disney+ account, In the Heights is one of the most joyously colourful movies of the summer, he has collaborated with Disney again for Encanto and his directorial debut Tick, Tick… Boom! is coming before the year is out. Between all of that, though, he also plays the lead in Vivo – the most pleasant cinematic surprise of 2021 so far.
Initially made by Sony Animation for a cinema release, the movie was sold to Netflix amid the effects of the pandemic-induced shuffle of studio release slates. As well as writing a sizeable selection of charming original songs for the movie, Miranda takes on the lead voice role as a rare kinkajou – a South American mammal also called the “honey bear”, to save you a Google – who spends his days performing with human buddy Andrés (Juan de Marcos González) in Cuba. When Andrés learns that his former musical partner and lover Marta (Gloria Estefan) – now an international music star – is performing a farewell gig, Vivo must travel to Miami to deliver a message of love only deepened by the intervening years.
Above all else, Vivo is about the connective power of music and its ability to bridge gaps geographical, temporal and seemingly insurmountable. When Vivo ponders the question “what difference can one song make?” in an early scene, he fires the starting gun on a movie which shows just how crucial a page of musical notes and associated lyrics can be. In the hands of this film, one song can symbolise grief, longing, love and the indelible mark left by the firmest memories.
It helps that all of this is carried by Miranda, who brings his trademark earnest charm to the role of an adorable critter wearing an artfully askew hat. He finds his perfect counterpoint in Gabi – Andrés’s outsider great-niece voiced with sugar rush energy by newcomer Ynairaly Simo. While Vivo’s life has always been about routine and planning, Gabi is pure chaos, acting on impulse and moving in an inchoate whirlwind of pink and purple hair. Even her signature musical number is noisy, messy and a little annoying. But, tellingly, when she sings her song with Vivo, they both sound better. Look, nobody could ever argue the metaphors aren’t obvious.
Thanks to a sharp script by Quiara Alegría Hudes and The Croods filmmaker Kirk DeMicco, who also directs, the film is a comic delight as Miranda’s one-liners mostly land and Gabi remains the right side of infuriating. She’s like a likeable little sister, rather than that one kid in a school classroom who seems to enjoy pulling people’s hair.
The supporting characters also bring comic riches, with a group of girl scouts – led by Katie Lowes’s sweetly megalomaniacal troupe leader Becky – imagined as militant environmental activists. They’re like a trio of Greta Thunbergs, but with their eco message twisted by the darkly superior confidence of middle-class privilege. The central characters’ quest, meanwhile, pits them against an episodic, Jungle Book-style, menagerie of animals, including lovelorn spoonbills and a devilish python – albeit one voiced with the sinister snarl of Michael Rooker, rather than the friendly, hypnotic tones of Winnie the Pooh.
But, wisely, Vivo clings tightly to the chemistry between the two lead characters. They’re a fairly standard chalk and cheese odd couple, but the strength of both the performances and the music ensures they manage to add meat to what is, at its core, a story structure that has sat at the heart of family cinema for decades. It fizzes with vibrant colour and energy across multiple animation styles – legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, notably, is credited as a visual consultant – and delivers the climactic emotional punch that the likes of Disney and Pixar have always reliably delivered.
But perhaps most enjoyable is how much of a natural home this feels for Miranda and his music. Part of the reason the Hamilton creator has become such a divisive figure – particularly among Gen Z audiences – is that he’s an obnoxiously omnipresent avatar of a certain brand of millennial cringe. But that sort of over-cranked earnestness fits this material like a glove, just as it did with Moana back in 2016. Certainly, after one of the toughest years any of us have experienced, there’s something delightful about a story which tells you that it doesn’t matter how many plans crumble and misfortunes get in your way, because there’s always another way to reach your goal. The tears at the end of this movie aren’t necessarily born of sadness or happiness, but pure catharsis.
In the guise of a monkey-like rainforest creature with a tiny hat, Lin-Manuel Miranda can’t help but fly.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.