Review: Animated ‘Vivo’ musical hits a few flat notes, but Lin-Manuel Miranda helps it sing
Vivo is not a monkey, but a kinkajou, which is not a primate but in the same family as raccoons. For the purposes of the Lin-Manuel Miranda-infused animated musical “Vivo,” he’s very monkey-like and very cute. And very musical. His story however ... is a mixed bag.
Vivo (voiced and sung by Miranda) loves his existence of going to the small Havana square every day with his human, elderly Andrés (Juan de Marcos González of “Buena Vista Social Club”), to perform for friendly crowds. That’s where we meet them, knocking out “One of a Kind,” an upbeat Cuban-inflected crowd-pleaser with some rat-a-tat rapping by the singing and dancing kinkajou. If the style rings a bell for “In the Heights” and “Hamilton” fans, it’s because Miranda wrote it along with six other songs for the movie.
Kindly Andrés gets a letter from singer Marta (Gloria Estefan), for whom he was once accompanist and whom he silently loved before she left to become a superstar decades ago. When Marta invites Andrés to reunite in Miami, he recognizes his chance to finally tell her how he has felt all these years. After tragedy strikes, it’s up to the resourceful kinkajou to find his way to America, to Marta’s final show, to deliver the love letter Andrés wrote her long ago in the form of a song.
That’s a pretty good setup.
Vivo is helped/hindered on his quest by Andrés’ grand-niece Gabi (Ynairaly Simo in her feature debut), a purple-haired, young outsider with plenty of joie de vivre and very little regard for her own safety. Their trek will take them from Key West, through the gator-filled Everglades, to the night streets of Miami.
Gabi starts out obnoxious, but grows on the viewer as she does on Vivo (mission accomplished!). At first, it feels as if the filmmakers are trying too hard to make her so unusual; her enemies being the mean girls is certainly expected. But it is sweet — and a valuable message — that she adores music, though she isn’t effortlessly talented. Young Simo generates the necessary positive energy to keep the train moving.
“Vivo” is a studio animated film aimed primarily at kids, so it’s obligated to have some adventure in it. The chases and side stories, however, feel like unnecessary detours at times when the central quest is interesting and invested with heart, as is this one. The result can be impatience for the story to move forward and high expectations for its resolution (the script is credited to director Kirk DeMicco of “The Croods” and Quiara Alegría Hudes, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Water by the Spoonful” and collaborator on “In the Heights,” both stage and screen versions).
There are some tonal issues. The filmmakers chose to not rip out viewers’ guts à la “Up” (I’m not crying, you’re crying), which is fine, but the emotion of the opening tragedy feels unexplored. The giant python pursuing the crew in the Everglades might be scarier than families with young kids would like (it’s voiced by Michael Rooker, so just imagine). While much of the film is candy-colored, with spoonbills falling in love and the like, the swamp scenes are moodier and more atmospheric than one might expect — until one learns legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins served as visual consultant, as he has done on the gorgeous “How to Train Your Dragon” films.
The look “Vivo” achieves is notable. Its characters and action are of the exaggerated types common to studio animation. But the renderings approach photorealism in shadows and textures while departing from it in design and other ambience to become more evocative, occasionally even incorporating line drawings and what we now call “2D.”
There are touches of Miranda magic that set “Vivo” apart from most animated musicals. It’s a pleasure to hear his hyper-dexterous verbosity in the opening number. While there’s nothing in the score to make fans forget “Hamilton,” there are a few songs with the uplifting gusto the composer brought to, say, “In the Heights”: “One of a Kind” and the spoonbill duet “Love’s Gonna Pick You Up” come to mind. The standout song is probably “My Own Drum,” Gabi’s girl-power declaration of independence, performed with brio by Simo. Ironically, though, the song the entire story builds up to, “Inside Your Heart (Para Marta),” does not turn out to be the home run the movie needs in the bottom of the ninth.
“Vivo” takes off with a cute kinkajou, some good music and some interesting visuals, but ultimately doesn’t stick the landing.
Rated: PG for some thematic elements and mild action
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Streaming Friday on Netflix
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