Netflix’s animated adventure Vivo has a weird origin story. Lin-Manuel Miranda originally pitched the movie to DreamWorks in 2010, before his Hamilton days. The project ended up at Sony Animation, where it was fast-tracked and fine-tuned with High School Musical screenwriter Peter Barsocchini. Slated for a 2020 theatrical release, Vivo was eventually shifted to 2021, then sold off to Netflix, where it’s finally available to stream.
Vivo comes from director Kirk DeMicco (The Croods), with music by Miranda and longtime collaborator Alex Lacamorien (Hamilton and In the Heights). And when the movie leans into the music and the love story at its core, it shines, evoking poignant emotions. But when the filmmakers try to smoosh in wildlife hijinks, it falls into the all-too-familiar trappings of the most cliché animated kids movies.
[Ed. note: this review contains spoilers for Vivo.]
The film follows a kinkajou named Vivo (voiced by Lin-Manuel Miranda) who plays with musician Andrés (Juan de Marcos González) every day in a plaza in Cuba. When Andres’ lost love Marta (Gloria Estefan), who left Cuba many years ago to become a famous musician, sends him a letter asking him to come to her last concert, he’s determined to give her the song he wrote many years ago on her departure. But there’s a significant plot reason Andrés cannot make the journey himself, or call or email to explain that. So Vivo must journey to Miami with the song, even if that means partnering up with Andrés’ great-niece, quirky Gabi (Ynairaly Simo), who much to Vivo’s despair, is an aspiring musician who isn’t very good at music.
The movie’s biggest selling point is Lin-Manuel Miranda, both as songwriter and as a vocal presence. But that creates a weird experience where Vivo raps about being hungry and scrappy on the streets, and it really just feels like an animated version of a Hamilton outtake. While the music is gorgeous, and definitely one of the film’s highlights, hearing Miranda’s nasal voice come out of the adorable kinkajou is jarring. (It doesn’t help that Miranda has become a meme on TikTok, and for the very plugged-in, he’s been associated with a certain stigma since many of the memes make fun of him.)
Miranda’s songwriting skills are still stellar, but the best part of Vivo happens when the music and animation work in tandem to elevate the story, playing with the visual style to highlight the music, so it all meshes together in a beautiful symphony. Andrés sings about his memories with Marta, and the movie shifts into a retro concert-poster style, with bright blocks of color and soft edges. When Gabi sings an anthem to being unapologetically weird, it becomes a neon techscape. These moments are transcendent, a testament to both the strength of the music and the creativity of the animation production design.
But while those sequences shine at the beginning, the middle of the movie turns into a romp through the Everglades, with a shoehorned-in subplot about Gabi trying to avoid the in-universe Girl Scouts because she thinks they’re lame rule-followers. (Also, they’re threatening to report Vivo to animal control.) There are a lot of talking-animal hijinks, as Vivo and Gabi meander through the wetlands. They get separated early in their adventure, which only escalates the problem of how disjointed this escapade feels from the overall story about music and long-lost would-be lovers. The middle of the movie feels like two entirely separate plotlines: one about a lost kinkajou encountering wild animals, and another about a weird little girl who doesn’t want to fit in with others. Some emotional threads do boost the overall story — like Gabi and her mother struggling to understand each other after the death of Gabi’s father — but a random love story between two birds, for instance, doesn’t add much.
Thankfully, by the time the film ends, the story shifts back to Marta and Andrés, and the final musical sequence is poignant. If more of the story focused on that romance and the power of music, Vivo would be a memorable experience, one similar to the emotional power of Pixar’s Coco, which also focuses on music, long-lost lovers, and the next generation carrying on the torch. Even with gorgeous animated sequences and wonderful music, the film juggles too many shenanigans, detracting from the more powerful story at hand. Still, the ending harkens back to what made the movie shine in the first place, tying it all together in a beautifully bittersweet finale.
Vivo is available on Netflix on Aug. 6.