Netflix animation film “Vivo”, which was released on last Friday, is not as colorful or memorable as required by its music background, and that is a shame considering a number of notable talented folks assembled here for its production. While it is often buoyed by its fairly commendable songs, the film does not have enough style and personality for being more than a merely passable musical story, and my mind kept going back to several better alternatives while not caring that much about its weak characters and predictable storyline.
The opening part of the film, which is set in Havana, Cuba, is engaging thanks to an odd but interesting pairing of two different talented artists. While Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has been a big household name to many of us thanks to his Broadway mega hit “Hamilton”, is jolly in his spirited voice performance as a kinkajou named Vivo, Juan de Marcos González, a Cuban musician who has been a key member of the Buena Vista Social club, effortlessly brings warmth and wisdom to Vivo’s old, hearty musician owner Andrés, and their distinctive voice actings complement well each other when they perform the first musical number scene in the film together.
Since he happened to be found and then raised by Andrés several years ago, Vivo has been Andrés’s dependable musical partner, and he has been pretty content with his life with Andrés, but there comes an unexpected news for Andrés. Many years ago, Andrés was quite close to a young talented female singer named Marta (voiced by Gloria Estefan, who is another inspiring casting choice in the film), and she was also in love with him even though they did not express their mutual feeling that much. When Marta subsequently left for US for a bigger career success promised to her, Andrés did not stop her at all because he did not want to stand on her way to success, and that seemed to be the end of their love story as many years passed, but, what do you know, Marta still does not forget Andrés at all as shown from the invitation letter for her upcoming farewell concert to be held in Miami, Florida.
Understandably excited and delighted by Marta’s invitation, Andrés promptly embarks on preparing a special song to be performed by Marta, and Vivo reluctantly supports Andrés’ decision to travel to Miami, but, alas, Andrés suddenly dies not long after that. Vivo subsequently mourns for Andrés’ untimely death along with many folks who enjoyed Andrés’ music in their neighborhood, and that is how Vivo comes across Andrés’ American grand-niece Gabi (voiced by Ynairaly Simo), who has just come to Havana along with her mother Rosa (voiced by Zoe Saldana) for attending Andrés’ memorial.
When he learns that Gabi and Rosa are from Key West, Florida and will soon go back there, Vivo decides to stow away to Florida via their return trip. Once he arrives in Key West, it looks like all he will have to do is going to Miami for meeting Marta by any means necessary, but, of course, things get a bit complicated when he is discovered by Gabi, who becomes quite enthusiastic about helping Vivo once she sees what he is trying to do. Although her mother, who is as forceful and stubborn as just like her daughter, expects her to join those local girl scout troopers selling cookies out there, Gabi wants to pay more attention to music as remembering her absent father, and helping Vivo certainly looks like a big exciting adventure to this plucky ebullient girl.
At first, it seems that their adventure will not be that long because all they need is a bus ride to Miami, but, of course, the situation soon becomes quite complicated when Gabi and Vivo come across a trio of sassy girl scout troopers, who become very zealous about taking Vivo away from Gabi as following their strong eco-friendly belief. While trying to evade these girl scout troopers, Gabi and Vivo inadvertently get themselves stranded in the middle of the wetland area of the Everglades, and it does not take much time for them to realize how dangerous it is to wander around in such a vast remote wildlife region like that.
This interlude part feels rather redundant in my humble opinion, but it is not entirely without amusement. You may be amused a bit by the scene involved with a pair of roseate spoonbills voiced by Brian Tyree Henry and Nicole Byer, and the mood becomes a bit tense when Vivo later encounters a giant anaconda voiced by Michael Rooker, who has a little small fun with his character’s vicious nature despite being under-utilized even compared to his brief recent appearance at the beginning of “The Suicide Squad” (2021).
It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Vivo and Gabi eventually come to find a way to arrive in Miami right before Marta’s farewell concert is started, and we surely get a moment of poignancy as Marta is doing what her old lover wanted for years, but the screenplay by director Kirk DeMicco and his co-writer Quiara Alegría Hudes, who previously collaborated with Miranda in “In the Heights” (2021), suffers from its rote storytelling and thin characterization. In case of a number of songs written by Miranda, they are as good as you can expect, but I doubt whether you will hum them as much as the key songs from “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” – or his Oscar-nominated song for Disney animation film “Moana” (2016).
On the whole, “Vivo” is a bright and cheerful musical animation film decorated with nice musical moments, but it does not leave us much impression in the end, and, though I watched it early in this morning, my mind is already beginning to forget it without much regret. In fact, I would rather recommend Oscar-nominated animation film “Chico & Rita” (2010), which handles not only Cuban music and cultural background but also its own bittersweet tale of star-crossed lovers well with more energy, style, and poignancy. Believe me, you will have a much more productive and entertaining time with that overlooked animation film.