After the wonderful family diversion in The Mitchells vs. the Machines earlier this year, Sony Pictures Animation is back with another Netflix production. Vivo stars Lin-Manuel Miranda as the titular kinkajou (a rare South American species) who performs on the streets of Havana, Cuba with his human counterpart – a very old Andrés (Juan de Marcos).
The film kicks off with a foot-taping dance number where the duo performs a mix of Miranda’s broadway rapping with a wonderful dose of traditional Cuban instruments. This is a great place to begin because as an audience I was instantly lured by the mix. Strangely, it works as an immersive starting point to this tale that soon moves to a letter that Andrés receives from a long-lost ex-love-interest and a now-famous singer Marta Sandoval (Gloria Estefan).
Marta is performing at her last Miami show and her wish is to reunite with her ex-partner Andrés, in order to revisit their glory days of playing together. Vivo who has been treated as a friend and close confidant rather than a pet animal by his owner is initially jealous. But a gorgeously designed 2-D animated dreamlike sequence (this part makes the actual animation feel incredibly pale) that harkens back to the jazzy, could-have-been romance between Andres and Marta helps Vivo understand.
The real coercion to go to Miami, however, comes from the fact that Andrés had written a love song for Marta that he never managed to tell her about. Since this is the last time he would be able to, he doesn’t hold himself back. This conflict deepens when things don’t work out the way the duo wants it to and Vivo is forced to team up with Andres’s grandniece Gabi (voiced by Ynairaly Simo).
Together, the two of them embark on an adventure to go from Florida (Gabi’s place) to Miami (where Marta’s concert is) so that they can deliver Andres’ song in time. The rest of the film is filled with colorful exuberant characters, forced-fed villains who bring hurdles on the way, and a whole lot of singing and dancing (not all of it is as excellent as the opening sequence).
Coming to the film itself, it is trying to address some really heavy things beneath the surface. Gabi, who is also the film’s best character, is a young girl who is coming of age. She has recently lost her father and her eccentric ways, sans the strange purple-colored hair, matching neckties with skirts are not sitting right with her worried, albeit nosy mother. Like Disney’s “Coco,” this film has an underlining theme of grief and how it shapes people’s life for better or worse.
Gabi who is an outcast does things her way. While the world and her mother want her to go out and be a diligent, cookie-selling teen, she wants to dance to the beat of her own drums. The song titled ‘My Own Drum’ is a brilliant and peppy number that uses contemporary music to deliver Gabi’s point across.
Sadly, newcomer Ynairaly Simo’s wonderful turn as Gabi is invertedly ruined by unfocused writing that more often than once squanders along to less interesting bits. It’s also frustrating that the titular character of Vivo isn’t interesting enough.
Director Kirk DeMicco (known for the first The Croods film) places him in a confusing mix of talking animals in animated films. The audiences and animals in the film can hear Vivo but the human counterparts can’t. This brings the film to a considerable standstill because Gabi, who is the only important human character here, can understand Vivo without him speaking a word. So, the choice of making him a talking animal for the other half of the film doesn’t sit well.
To add to that misery, a bunch of other animals, including two lovelorn birds and a python are thrown into the mix. This is probably because the director felt that he didn’t have enough material to fill up the 96-minute runtime. More so, the resolve in the film is inept and doesn’t feel well-earned. Villainizing a bunch of teen girls just to get them back on the ferry train is a lame excuse too. I feel that the mid-section of the film is full of filler material and that isn’t very good for a film that kicks off in a delightful manner.
The only good thing that makes Vivo worth remembering is just how Miranda mixes Cuban traditionalism with Americanist anarchy. The jazzy mix of hip-hop with EDM peppered by Miranda’s Broadway lyricism really works in parts and that’s the only reason you should take this trip.
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