Toe-tappingly delightful and full of vibrant musical numbers, at a first glance you might mistake Sony Pictures’ latest outing, Vivo, as one of Disney’s many animated features. The rich and spirited music aside, the film’s soaring visual sensibility brings to life countless dynamic and striking sequences, setting a fast-paced groove to perfectly match its upbeat soundtrack. Combined with a story that plays at the heartstrings, Vivo makes for a dazzling display of family fun.
Featuring the voice and songs of Hamilton’s own Lin Manuel Miranda, Vivo is Sony’s first animated musical – a venture no doubt emboldened by the talent at its forefront. Miranda, who penned eleven new original songs for the film, also brings its main character to life, the titular Vivo, an orange and purple fedora-wearing kinkajou that can play just about every instrument known to his little rat-tat-tapping fingers. If you’ve been weary from Miranda’s incessant, pervasive presence across what feels like every media platform, it may be surprising that his work here feels fresh and distinct. While he sometimes falls into the trap of self-indulgent rapping solos and repetitive lyric structure that feels like he’s reached the limits of his poeticism, there are more than enough bangers here to make up the difference.
The film’s opening – a flamboyant and lively duet between Vivo and his elderly companion Andrés (Juan de Marcos González) – welcomes us into this musically infused world with ease, establishing the relationship between the two characters, their livelihood as a two-man (er… singer?) act at their town plaza, as well as their history together. They are family and their street performances are all Vivo has known since he was rescued as a child, so when an invitation to join Andrés’ lost love Marta in Miami arrives, a wrench is shoved between their life-long friendship. Why would Vivo – or Andrés – want to give up their whole life for someone who left 60 years ago? In a miracle of character arc speedrunning, Vivo is soon on board, making it his personal mission to find Marta and deliver an unspoken message: a love song from Andrés. The only problem? They live in Cuba.
With help from Andrés’ youthfully rebellious niece Gabi (Ynairaly Simo), Vivo travels from Cuba to the Florida Keys. Marking a distinct visual shift, Florida is definitely not the town square Vivo is familiar with. Replacing the antiquated cars of the Cuban streets are modern SUVs hauling flashy yachts and looming buses bearing advertisements. In making their way to Miami, Vivo finds himself hunted by a pack of young girls, Gabi’s (reluctant) acquaintances from her cookie-selling Sand Dollar Troop – an environmentalist Girl Scouts knock-off. Shaming passersby for plastic bag usage and driving short distances while ironically belonging to families with gas-guzzling yachts, the Sand Dollars feel appropriately evil in their quest to “save the lost kinkajou” – and the uniform character designs of small faces and exaggerated body language fits them perfectly.
Vivo’s Miami-bound travels eventually bring him and his companion to the Everglades and face-to-face with more than the film’s fair share of colorful characters. Love-sick spoonbills and adder-looking pythons are but few of the encounters the Floridian swamps hold, making for an oddly paced episodic break in the middle of this otherwise focused story. “Bounce to the Beat of Your Own Drum” is the mantra of Vivo, but it feels like this section of the film is trying to be closer to the bayou-based escapades in The Princess and the Frog than its own thing.
Once we get to the neon lights of Miami, though, Vivo settles back into its own. Fresh off a somewhat contrived reconciliation that feigns character growth and drives home a secondary theme of friendship and belonging, there’s a clear end in sight. Focusing back on the concrete emotional stakes established earlier on, the film picks up weight and speed, building to its expected show-stopping finale: Marta’s final concert performance.
Although emotionally resonant, Vivo‘s climax feels a bit confused. There are several beats that function as climactic for our numerous characters, each building to a single cumulative moment – one that feels almost hollow. The big performance at the film’s end has nothing to do with Vivo (or even Gabi, who has grown into a sort-of secondary protagonist role). At this point, they have reached the end of their quest, so the film’s complete and whole-hearted indulgence in an extravagantly soulful (and beautifully animated) two-minute song feels tangibly static. And the film justifiably wants you to feel this moment! It’s impeccably animated and edited, melting away the computer-generated world into a flat, 2D dream-like state where the music takes on a life of its own. But our characters, watching and listening, just stand there.
Nontheless, Vivo is Sony Pictures putting their foot down and confidently proclaiming, “We can do a musical too!” We’ve seen the studio reach masterful highs in recent years with Into the Spider-Verse and The Mitchells vs. The Machines, and while Vivo may not quite match up to the intricate storytelling of the aforementioned, it’s a film that bears the hallmarks of wholly dedicated, inspired, and remarkably talented creatives behind the scenes. Regardless if it lacks some of the storytelling prowess and ingenuity of more well-known musicals and animated features, Vivo certainly demands an audience. Hopefully, it will find one.