Vivo first began as a project with Dreamworks Animation, partnering with Lin-Manuel Miranda after the booming success of “In the Heights”. The project fell apart as Dreamworks got passed around between various corporate owners and it got lost in the shuffle. Then “Hamilton” happened and Sony Pictures Animation revived the project, complete with 11 new original songs written by Executive Producer Miranda and a score composed by Exec Musical Producer Alex Lacamoire (also of the “Hamilton” creative core).
Sure enough, the film establishes early and often that Miranda’s unique songwriting talent will be a huge draw for the film. Right from the outset, we get fluid bilingual wordplay with cleverly intricate rhyme schemes, all coming out at a million miles an hour. Granted, this isn’t exactly Miranda’s best work, and the choruses are typically much less impressive than the verses. Still, even the least of Miranda’s songs shows lyrical dexterity and infectious fun like nobody else can deliver. And then we get to the premise.
The eponymous Vivo (voiced by Miranda) is a kinkajou, a small yellow mammal primarily seen in the rainforests of South America. Though Vivo was clearly designed and animated as a kind of small monkey, I’ve been informed that kinkajous are more closely related to raccoons or lemurs. Anyway, long story short, Vivo stowed away in a shipping crate and landed in the fair city of Havana, Cuba.
Shortly after arrival, Vivo was taken in by a street musician named Andres (voiced by Juan de Marcos González-Cárdenas, a central member of the fabled Buena Vista Social Club). Though Vivo can’t speak English (it’s a Garfield kind of deal — none of his lines are diegetic), Vivo and Andres speak together in music and they play phenomenal songs for passersby.
Everything’s going great until word comes in that Andres’ old musical partner and long-lost love (Marta, voiced by freaking Gloria Estefan) is retiring from music after a wildly successful career, and she’s playing one last concert at the Mambo Cabana in Miami. Marta sends a letter inviting Andres to come, prompting Andres to dig up past nostalgic relics. Among them is a love song he wrote to Marta that he never played and nobody got to hear.
Andres is over the moon for the chance to go to Miami and find his closure, though Vivo is extremely reluctant to leave home. He changes his mind quickly when Andres passes away in his sleep.
Enter Rosa (Zoe Saldana), who was married to Andres’ late nephew. She obligingly comes to Cuba for Andres’ funeral, bringing along her own daughter (Gabi, voiced by newcomer Ynairaly Simo). As these two humans are Andres’ last remaining relatives and they hail from Florida, Vivo seizes the opportunity to stow away in their luggage so he can make his way to Miami and deliver Andres’ love song to Marta, fulfilling his old partner’s dying wish.
Problem: Rosa is absolutely dead-set against allowing Gabi to keep a pet. Probably a wise decision, as we later learn that all three of Gabi’s previous pets died prematurely. What’s worse, Rosa has apparently made it her mission to keep Gabi under control and push her into the Sand Dollars (a thinly-veiled Girl Scouts pastiche) so Gabi can wear a uniform and follow rules and put her energy toward a productive use.
You may think that sounds overly harsh. You haven’t met Gabi. This girl is loud, abrasive, destructive, and defiantly chaotic. Tell her to calm down or behave and she’ll act out a million times louder just out of spite, that’s the kind of girl we’re talking about here. So what we’ve got here is a young woman who’s lashing out and driving people away because she’s still not entirely over her father’s passing, and she has to learn how to express her individuality in a productive way that doesn’t leave her completely alone.
All well and good. So… how much longer do we have to wait for this character to grow into something likeable? That doesn’t happen until just after the climax? Okay, cool.
For that matter, Vivo already went through something like this. We just saw how he’s a helpless little mammal who needs to learn how to swallow his pride, accept help from the loving human, and venture out beyond his comfort zone. Does this mean he’ll have to go through it all again? Sadly, yes. Vivo spends most of the running time relearning lessons he already figured out in the first fifteen minutes.
This also means that the Vivo/Gabi dynamic is consistently one-sided, as Gabi has to learn from Vivo and she has basically nothing to teach Vivo in return. Sure, there’s theoretically some measure of transaction, as Gabi provides practical support for the small mammal who can’t go much of anywhere without support. But Gabi has no impulse control or ability to plan, and she’s also a young girl who’s effectively run away from home, so her means of support turn out to be pathetically limited. I might add that during the multiple times when stealth is necessary, Gabi’s bright purple hair and flashy dress sense make her worse than useless.
The filmmakers also try to make the case that Vivo is too uptight and Gabi can teach him a few things about loosening up, improvising in the face of adversity, and learning to enjoy the ride. Folks, I’ve been to Havana personally. And I’m here to tell you that its portrayal in the film’s opening minutes is impeccable. So I know for an absolute fact that if Vivo never learned how to kick back and relax in freaking Havana, he never will.
Moving on to the voice cast, Lin-Manuel Miranda is an intensely charismatic performer, capable of thoroughly dominating any stage or screen. That comes through loud and clear in the musical numbers, not so much during the spoken dialogue. Somehow, the design and animation on Vivo simply don’t convey the magnetism or style that make Miranda such a compelling performer.
Zoe Saldana is tragically underutilized. Gloria Estefan and Juan de Marcos Gonzalez don’t get much, but they make every second of screentime count. Ynairaly Simo is… quite audibly young and inexperienced, but I’ll be interested to see where she goes from here.
Then we have the supporting characters whom Vivo and Gabi meet on their journey. Brian Tyree Henry and Nicole Byer appear as a couple of unnecessary comic relief birds. Michael Rooker shows up as a villainous snake who hates noise, hitting that sweet spot where I can’t tell if he should’ve been given more to do or if he should’ve been left on the cutting room floor. Katie Lowes plays Becky, the bitchy and overzealous yet well-intentioned head of the Sand Dollar troupe. She starts out as the polar opposite of Gabi, a pint-sized tyrant obsessed with rules and authority, until a sudden face-turn that falls entirely flat.
The animation works well enough, but I’m not a fan of the character designs. The character designs were clearly designed to be cartoonish in nature, yet the backgrounds all look impeccably detailed for realism. Pick one or the other (or at least pick a happy medium like we saw with Coco or Luca), because the two clashing approaches don’t work.
Considering how long Vivo languished in development, and considering how much effort clearly went into the animation, it still feels undercooked. The development arcs are broken across the board, the themes are all over the place, and even with the acknowledgment that this was clearly made for a much younger audience, the plot glides on predictable rails. This is absolutely a screenplay that needed another draft or two before it could be anywhere near on par with other contemporary animated kids’ flicks.
Yes, the songs are fantastic from start to finish. Even if the songs aren’t exactly Lin-Manuel Miranda’s best work, they’re still phenomenal. I heartily recommend the soundtrack. Don’t bother with the movie.