The basic premise of Vivo is both simple and heartfelt: A kinkajou goes on a quest to deliver a love letter from his father figure to his father figures long lost love. That’s it, that’s the whole pitch, and if you pack the cast with talented actors and singers and hire a nearly-EGOT-winning songwriter to turn the whole thing into a musical, that’s a recipe for something special. Most of the time, anyway.
That’s not to say that Vivo is bad; exactly, it’s just fine. It opens with a toe-tapping duet that will stick in your head for ages and closes with a reprise of the same, but there’s a long stretch in the middle where the film takes no exactly no chances and suffers for it.
To recap, Vivo (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is a kinkajou who lives with his friend and father figure, Andrés(Juan de Marcos Gonzalez), in Havana, Cuba. They play music together in the plaza each day, and that is the only world that Vivo knows, having been found by Andrés as a baby. Then, one day they get word that Marta (Gloria Estefan) –Andrés long lost love who left for a life of fame in Miami– is retiring and wants to reconnect.
Before Andrés can act on that, he has a fight with Vivo, who doesn’t want to leave, but then passes away, leading Vivo to go on a guilt-fueled quest to get a love song that Andrés wrote to Marta. Luckily, Vivo meets Gabi, Andrés’ spunky, marches to the beat of her own drum niece, who resolves to help him on this quest.
There’s a recurring theme in the film of how people connect, made all the more explicit by the fact that Miranda’s mile-a-minute dialogue delivery is only heard as chirps and trills by the humans in the story, but he manages to communicate regardless. Gabi (Ynairaly Simo) is a walking animated stereotype, and hilarity ensues. Or it should, anyway.
The issue is that most of the quest isn’t that interesting. Vivo makes it to Key West, but the journey to Miami takes a detour through the swamp and basically every animated movie trope. Reptillian bad guy? Check. Hapless bird supporting characters? Check. Antagonistic know-it-all trio of uniformed young girls trying to make Gabi conform? Check.
By the time they get to Miami –which does look amazing, but more on that in a moment– the film nearly lost me, and it’s only the strength of the film’s final two songs that I stayed on board.
It’s frustrating, too, because all the pieces are there. The connection between Vivo and Andrés feels real (and Juan de Marcos Gonzales performance is one of the best in the film), a few of the songs are absolute bangers, and the film does look gorgeous. Havana looks and feels sundrenched and warm, Miami is rendered in glowing neon light like a city in Tron, and there are a few flashback scenes animated in 2d that absolutely burst with old school animated charm, colour, and imagination.
Here’s the problem with Vivo. It’s good, but it feels like it should be great, and it isn’t. That’s not a kind thing to say, but it’s the only way I can think to say it. The animation is great but not as good as other efforts from the same studio this year. A few songs are great, but there are more than a few that are completely forgettable.
It’s important, I feel, to remember that this movie is meant for kids, but the best kids movies have something for everyone, and Vivo lacks that, too. So there it is: Vivo is a movie I very much wanted to love but didn’t, and if I’m totally honest, I’m not even sure I liked it, either.
- Zoe Saldana plays Gabi’s mother, and I wish she’d had more singing to do.
- Of course Vivo is wearing a jaunty fedora. Of course.
- Michael Rooker is on board as a villanous snake, and he is pretty great.
- I really wish there were more of the 2D segments. They are stunning.
- That opening number is great though.
Vivo will premiere on Netflix this Friday, August 6th.
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