While Lin-Manuel Miranda missed out on his chance to EGOT five years ago (after Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go” lost Best Original Song to La La Land’s “City of Stars”), the award-winning multi-hyphenate is back with a vengeance in 2021, pinning his hopes on three big Oscar bets. Earlier this summer, we saw the release of the film adaptation of his hit Broadway musical In the Heights, which he produced, and in addition to this auspicious contender, Miranda wrote an array of original songs for two upcoming animated films – Sony’s Vivo (now being distributed by Netflix) and Disney’s Encanto. Though we have to wait until Thanksgiving to see what he has in store with the latter, Vivo is poised to premiere on Netflix in just a week, with Miranda not only providing the music but simultaneously voicing the title role as well. Unfortunately, Vivo’s straightforward and standard story does sap the film of a bit of its splendor, but it’s a pleasing picture nonetheless, and one that should satisfy younger audiences most of all, who are likely to be swept up in Miranda’s supremely catchy songwriting.
Vivo kicks off in flashy fashion, as the titular kinkajou makes soul-stirring and show-stopping music with his adored owner, Andrés (Juan de Marcos González), for hordes of people passing by in a lively Havana square. It’s clear from the start that these two are a perfect pair, and even if they don’t speak the same language, they’re connected for life through their common love of the musical arts. Vivo would do anything for Andrés, and that dedication is truly put to test mere moments later, as Andrés receives a letter from the legendary Marta Sandoval (Gloria Estefan), a widely acclaimed artist whom Andrés played with in his youth – and secretly harbored feelings for. Marta invites Andrés to perform one last time together in her farewell concert, but when Andrés is suddenly unable to deliver his reply to Marta himself – and finally confess his love for her – it’s up to Vivo and Andrés’ grand-niece Gabi (newcomer Ynairaly Simo) to make their way to Miami, Florida and relay this message before the concert commences.
After a stellar start, Vivo’s mightily propulsive momentum does come to a bit of a stop with a second act that’s simply far more familiar to those who are well-versed in the world of animation today. The first act offers a sumptuous setting in the form of Vivo and Andrés’ colorful Cuban surroundings, cultivates an arresting aural atmosphere with Miranda’s toe-tapping tunes, and even serves up a starkly tragic twist that is sure to catch audiences off guard. Sadly, when Vivo and Gabi embark on their march to Miami – full of eccentric encounters – it’s hard not to feel like these plot beats are more perfunctory or “by-the-numbers.” Perhaps Pixar sets our standards too high when it comes to our expectations for current animated features, but a mismatched pair setting aside their differences and making their way to some far-off destination is a story we’ve all seen before, and Vivo doesn’t do much to switch up the formula. Thankfully the resolution in the third act is rewarding and quite emotionally resonant, but one does wonder if we couldn’t have reached this point a bit quicker.
Vivo is still sure to satisfy its target audience of children regardless, as it’s unlikely they’ll even notice said story-related complains thanks to the film’s infectious sense of fun, hearty humor, and solid soundtrack. Even if the jokes are largely directed towards the younger demographic (with a few gems added for adults as well), they’re still serviceable for the most part, while never perhaps landing any gut-busting bits. However, the music is the real star of the show – and the main reason to watch Vivo at all – as Miranda delivers tracks that will absolutely have audiences dancing in their seats. They may not breach the lyrical brilliance of Hamilton or Moana, but they’re riotously entertaining in their own right, with the opening number “One of a Kind” setting things up in style and subsequent standouts like the melodious “My Own Drum” and the beautifully moving “Keep the Beat” surely earning fans too.
Miranda’s singing talent is no surprise by this point, but González and Simo match his musical might magnificently, as do those in the supporting cast, such as Bryan Tyree Henry and Nicole Byer’s Dancarino and Valentina – two star-crossed spoonbills who slay the poppy “Love’s Gonna Pick You Up (And Never Put You Down)” – and Estefan’s Marta Sandoval, who expectedly excels with the climactic “Inside Your Heart.” Each musical number is also complemented by absorbing animation styles that work well at differentiating all the songs from one another; in particular, the aforementioned “My Own Drum” perfectly places us in manic mind of Gabi. Vivo is never more alive than during these musical sequences, knowing exactly how to play to Miranda’s strengths as a performer and songwriter. In spite of the occasional second act lags, the film is worth a watch for these set pieces alone.
Vivo might not be the home run Miranda and co intended for it to be – and it probably won’t be his ticket back to the Dolby Theatre – but it’s a delightful enough animated diversion, especially for its core audience. Even if it isn’t the most memorable addition to the animation medium, Miranda’s musical sensibilities are as stellar as ever, and a charming voice cast enlivens the proceedings considerably. And for families looking a fun Friday night watch at home, Vivo should fit that bill fantastically.
Vivo will be available on Netflix on Friday, August 6.