In 2021, seemingly everybody wants a piece of Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Sony Pictures Animation is no exception. The studio looks to be pinning its hopes on the Puerto Rican’s ceaseless popularity with its newest release – support it may not have needed, given the production’s strengths lie elsewhere.
Andréas (Juan de Marcos González) is a musician and street entertainer living in Havana, Cuba, who for years has entertained locals with his dancing kinkajou – a tree-dwelling, monkey-like mammal with golden fur – which he calls Vivo (the abovementioned Miranda). The pair are most happy living and performing together, but their relationship is tested when Andréas is invited to play alongside his long-lost love, songstress Marta (Gloria Estefan) in Miami, the city she now calls home.
After some internal deliberation, Vivo decides to join Andréas on his trip Stateside, only for a twist of fate to quash their plans and leave the latter’s affections for Marta unaffirmed. It’s at this point that the kinkajou decides on journeying alone to Miami, eventually alighting at the port town of Key West, Florida, three hours’ drive from his intended destination. Luckily, Key West is also the home of Andréas’ great-niece, Gabi (Ynairaly Simo) who pledges to help Vivo in his quest to locate Marta.
Vivo is the latest project to bear the stamp of the multitalented Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has been busier than ever this year – he’s already produced a widely-acclaimed film adaptation of his stage musical In the Heights, made an appearance in Questlove’s documentary Summer of Soul, written songs for the upcoming Disney feature Encanto, and next month will be making his directorial debut with Tick, Tick… Boom! On this occasion, Miranda’s song-writing abilities are utilised in addition to his vocal talents, undoubtedly pleasing fans of his work and riling those who find him less appealing.
In keeping with the film’s settings, there’s a clear Latin American and Afro-Caribbean influence to the tunes, which is unfortunately the only praise that can be afforded to the soundtrack. Miranda’s music is more grating than ever in Vivo, his hybridised rapping-singing making for an inelegant accompaniment to the visuals, and almost none of his numbers being memorable – the sole outlier is Gabi’s song “My Own Drum”, if only for how obnoxious and annoying it is. Indeed, so unremarkable are these compositions that they are enough to eradicate any tolerance for Lin-Manuel’s stylings.
Another weak element of Vivo is the screenplay, being of a lesser standard than what other studios are producing. It’s storytelling at its most basic on display here, including a familiar narrative arc and tropes diligently adhered to, resulting in a plot that is quite bland and unimaginative. That stated, the story is a heartfelt one, with its resonant struggles and touching moments between characters ensuring an emotional wallop for viewers of all ages; and for younger demographics, the film offers considered, thoughtful messaging about dealing with grief.
More pleasing still are the visuals, with Vivo’s distinctive illustrations and unique designs echoing the quality of its Sony Pictures Animation stablemates, Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse and The Mitchells vs. The Machines – although neither are surpassed in this instance. Highly stylised versions of Havana and Miami have been rendered, featuring thick, blocky architecture shaded the brightest of colours, while the human characters are all round- or wide-shaped figures that differ from the artform’s norm. (There’s even some brief, yet nonetheless enjoyable 2D sequences, as evidenced above.)
Also worthy of compliment is the voice-cast, with every actor performing solidly. Ynairaly Simo leaves the greatest impression, being the perfect choice for the outgoing, rambunctious Gabi, even managing to outdo established celebrities like Zoe Saldana, who voices Gabi’s mother, Rosa. And on the subject of celebrities, there’s a fair number who lend their vocal talents to the movie, the most entertaining of which are Brian Tyree Henry as a lovesick spoonbill, and Michael Rooker as a sinister python, both of whom put all their effort into their performances despite being heard only briefly.
Save for a cliched plot and middling soundtrack, Vivo is a pleasurable distraction that benefits from great voice-work, vibrant imagery and, above all, scenes of tenderness that are bound to move even the most hardened of viewers. Consider the inclusion of Lin-Manuel Miranda as an added bonus – or minus, depending on preference.
This review was first published by Rating Frames on October 14th, 2021.