'Vivo' Review: A Charming Animated Film That Doesn't Hit The High Notes

Watching the new animated film Vivo inspires two thoughts, one of which is far less controversial than the other. The first is that timing really is everything. This Latin American animated musical about the power of any one song was apparently pitched over a decade ago, but coming a few years after Pixar's Coco means that Vivo feels unfortunately like a very slow runner-up to a creative arms race.

The second thought, and the one that may inspire horrified reactions or angry comments, is that perhaps there is a limit to the talents of Lin-Manuel Miranda. The star and songwriter of Vivo is immensely gifted, as shows like Hamilton and In the Heights prove. But his performing gifts only go so far, as this film unfortunately displays.

Miranda voices the exuberant kinkajou Vivo in the film named after said animal. We first meet Vivo and his owner Andres (Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, of the Buena Vista Social Club) on the streets of Havana, Cuba, performing for adoring crowds. Vivo speaks and sings and raps...well, at least to the audience watching at home via Netflix, where the film is premiering on August 6. But to Andres, Vivo is just a strangely musically gifted kinkajou with an ear for a good melody. One day, Andres is shocked to receive a letter from famed singer Marta Sandoval (Gloria Estefan), not just because she's winding down her singing career with one last show, but because the two of them used to perform together. Andres never admitted his affections for Marta, except in a song he's kept hidden for years. Vivo is initially wary, but after some tragedy strikes, he takes it upon himself to head to Miami, Florida, along with a goofy girl named Gabi, to give the song to Marta and bond the two old friends once more.

Vivo is, to be clear, a perfectly reasonable, charming animated movie. (Though Netflix acquired it, the film was produced by Sony Pictures Animation and was originally intended for theatrical release. Another creative victim of the pandemic.) When you compare the film to some recent family-film competition, it's a far better option than, say, Space Jam 2: Let Us Never Speak of This Again. But Vivo also has the unfortunate whiff of being a creative leftover, in more ways than one. There's the broad-based similarity between Vivo and Coco, though the two stories take place in totally different locations in Latin America. But there's also the unavoidable connection between Vivo and Gabi's burgeoning friendship with, say, the odd-couple friendship of Carl and Russell in Up. (Vivo's younger than Carl, but is largely baffled by Gabi and her oddball personality.) Plus, Vivo is strangely reminiscent, simply as an animated character, to Abu from Aladdin, if only the Agrabah monkey could sing and talk.

Miranda wrote the film's songs, and certainly many of them allow for him to shine in his rapid-fire rapping, though it's always a little jarring to be reminded that the humans surrounding Vivo hear wordless chirping from the kinkajou instead. Miranda, coupled with the presence of Estefan and a member of the fabled Buena Vista Social Club, means that the music here is impressive without being quite terribly memorable. This isn't anyone's fault, as much as being the victim of high expectations. Yes, the music is good. But when you've written Hamilton and In the Heights and the songs from Moana, the bar is high to clear for your next project. (Hold onto that sentence for Miranda's next musical outing, the songs from Disney's upcoming Encanto.)

That problem feels like Vivo in a microcosm. There's nothing particularly wrong with this movie, and we ought to celebrate any animated film that's original, especially one coming from a studio outside of the Disney conglomerate. Part of what holds the film back is that for as talented as Miranda is, when he's tasked with reciting dialogue instead of singing, there's something missing from his performance. It may just as easily be an issue with the trappings of recording dialogue for an animated film in a booth, compared with the chemistry he can build with actors on stage. It's not quite the same just hearing his voice removed from everything else.

Vivo is plenty colorful, with a bright pastel palette both when the film's action takes place in Cuba and in Florida, though the backgrounds are far less detailed than would be ideal. It's good, but not good enough. The same is true of the story, and of the songs. This is Vivo: it's good. But there's an extra step or two the film could have taken to reach the high notes, instead of sticking in a comfort zone. Good on Sony and Netflix for making and distributing a film focused on the Latin American experience. That this film exists is a good thing. If only it was great./Film Rating: 6 out of 10