Producers: Lisa Stewart, Michelle L.M. Wong and Rich Moore Directors: Kirk DeMicco and Brandon Jeffords Screenplay: Kirk DeMicco and Quiara Alegria Hudes Cast: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ynairaly Simo, Zoe Saldana, Juan de Marcos González, Brian Tyree Henry, Gloria Estefan, Nicole Byer, Michael Rooker, Leslie David Baker, Katie Lowes, Olivia Trujillo and Lidya Jewett Distributor: Netflix
It’s always sad when a movie puts its best foot forward at the start but then stumbles badly. That’s the case with this animated musical with songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which begins with a charming, even touching prologue but then is wrenched into territory not only far more conventional but positively irritating. “Vivo” has some pleasant music, an occasional witty line of dialogue and solid voice work, but in the end is a disappointment.
Miranda voices the title character, a kinkajou (“honey bear,” a cute monkey-like critter) living in Havana with his lovable old partner, guitarist Andrés (Juan de Marcos González). They support themselves by performing together on the square, and their opening song, “One of a Kind,” is precisely the sort of exuberant opening you’d find in a Broadway musical.
The charm continues in the interaction between Vivo (whose chatter morphs into English for our benefit) and Andrés that follows their street show. But the night brings a surprise: a letter from Marta Sandoval (Gloria Estefan), Andrés’ one-time partner and long-lost love: on the very evening he was going to reveal his feelings for her, she was invited to appear at the Mambo Cabana in Miami, and rather than stand in her way, he stood aside and watched her leave. Now Marta is retiring, and asks Andrés to join her in her farewell performance.
At first Vivo opposes Andrés’ desire to go to Miami and deliver the love song he’d written for Marta but never given her, but he relents. Unfortunately, Andrés suddenly passes away, and after a moving funeral Vivo determines to deliver the song for him.
It’s at this point that “Vivo” takes a misstep from which it never really recovers. Among the mourners at Andrés’ funeral are his niece Rosa (Zoe Saldana) and her daughter Gabi (Ynairaly Simo). The latter suggests to Vivo that they join together in order to take Andrés’ message to Marta.
That plot turn might have been a good idea were Gabi less obnoxious a character. She’s a purple-haired rebel who proclaims her own sense of superiority in a strident anthem titled “My Own Drum.” It’s perhaps the worst song Miranda has ever written (his unpublished student work isn’t available for comparison), with terrible, self-congratulatory lyrics and a bombastically percussive beat in stark contrast to the charm of the earlier songs. It stops the movie in its tracks.
Still, it might have recovered had Gabi become a peripheral character, but she remains, with Vivo, a central one, and though over the course of the plot some of her rough edges are smoothed away, she never ceases to be off-putting.
The raucous quest she and Vivo undertake to get to the Mambo Cabana in time for Marta’s concert involves Rosa, a trio of intrusive girl scouts (Katie Lowes, Olivia Trujillo and Lidya Jewett) and a befuddled bus driver (David Baker). But an accidental detour leads to its most extended episode, an unplanned visit to the everglades where they encounter a pair of spoonbills, lovesick Dancarino (Brian Tyree Henry) and his initially standoffish soulmate Valentina (Nicole Byer), along with a giant anaconda named Lutador (Michael Rooker), who is definitely not a music-lover.
Of course the pair overcome all obstacles and complete their mission, making for a joyfully sentimental finale in which Marta pays proper respects to Andrés in song.
“Vivo” looks pretty spectacular as far as computer-animated pictures go—it was actually made by Sony Pictures Animation for Columbia release before being picked up by Netflix—and the artists, as well as production designer Carlos Zaragosa and cinematographer Yong Duk Jhun, did an excellent job. Alex Lacamoire’s background score and Erika Dapkewicz’s editing are also fine.
But when a script goes down the wrong road, even the best craftsmanship isn’t enough. “Vivo” starts well but quickly loses its way and ultimately comes up short.