What difference can one song make?
That’s the question posed and triumphantly answered over the course of Vivo, the new animated musical released on Netflix last week. Vivo was directed by Kirk DeMicco, but the creative voice most identifiable with the project (especially since his literal voice is all over it) is Hamilton/In the Heights mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda not only wrote a whole host of original songs for the film, he also voices the titular kinkajou (a too-cuddly-to-be-believed little critter) and brought along his In the Heights collaborators including genius composer Alex Lacamoire and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Quiara Alegría Hudes.
In partnership with DeMicco, co-director Brandon Jeffords, and a squad of animators, these modern masters of the musical format have crafted an adventure that’s stuffed end-to-end with toe-tapping showstoppers, all in service to a quietly shattering story about the way that the art we create and share binds us to the people we love, even after they’re gone.
When the movie starts, the titular Vivo is perfectly content with his life in Cuba playing music in the town plaza with Andres, (Juan de Marcos González) the kindly old man who rescued Vivo as a lost infant and taught him the magic of music and performance.
Vivo and Andres’s world is tiny, and that’s just the way Vivo likes it. He’s happy only ever traveling the two blocks from their apartment to the plaza where they play the same set of perfectly-choreographed songs day in and day out. But that harmony is broken when Andres receives a letter from his former partner, Marta (Gloria Estefan). The double act was broken when Marta left Cuba to sing in America, robbing Andres of the chance to tell her that he loved her. Decades later, Marta is preparing for a final concert before retirement, and she wants Andres to come to Florida to play with her, one last time.
Andres is ecstatic for a second chance with his true love, but Vivo is terrified at the prospect of saying goodbye to the comfortable routine that has kept him safe for so long. But such is Vivo’s love for his friend, he’s willing to throw caution to the wind and pursue this new adventure.
And then…life happens. And life is just absolutely not fair, a fact that the film illustrates with quiet, gentle firmness. Andres is robbed of his reunion, leaving Vivo alone with only a piece of paper containing the song into which Andres poured all his love for the woman who got away.
Determined to bring Marta the song, Vivo ends up partnering up with Andres’s off-beat 10-year-old niece Gabi (impressive newcomer Ynairaly Simo) on a journey through the wilds of Florida in a race against time to reach Miami before the concert.
If there’s one knock that’s been leveled against Vivo, it’s that the film is playing with tropes and cliches that will be very familiar to anyone who’s seen any number of modern animated films. Yes, this is a film about mismatched buddies with competing temperaments on a road trip. Yes, the duo encounter a whole host of oddballs and misfits with problems that need to be solved who will inevitably prove helpful to the overarching story. Yes, a discerning viewer will most likely spot the big hammer blow of emotion that the first act sets the third act up to deliver.
But, first of all, cliches and tropes become cliches and tropes for a reason. Because they work. Vivo is not trying to reinvent the wheel in terms of family entertainment, it’s telling a good story well and using every narrative and emotional tool at its disposal to tell that story effectively. Being able to anticipate where the path is going to lead you does not change the tremendous satisfaction at being delivered there, not when each step of the way has flowed organically and honestly.
And second of all, Vivo’s take on those tropes is superior to any number of comparable films because Miranda and Hudes’s facility with the musical format enables them to steer around the icebergs that typically sink so many films of this type. Whereas other writers and directors add in needless convolutions and manufactured conflict to try and juice a story out to feature length.
So there’s no stretch where one character is withholding information from another character so the truth can come out at the most inconvenient time and ruin everything. There’s no dumb misunderstanding that could be solved if one person would just speak openly to another person, but instead everyone gets mad at each other at the end of act two so then act three everyone can come together. There’s no attempt to juice the final stretch of the movie with a needless villain for the sake of a big blockbuster action set-piece. What antagonists the film does have are either laughable, incidental, or easily redeemed.
Instead, Vivo concentrates on the things that are actually the appealing parts of these sorts of movies. The animation is an exuberant explosion of colors and energy, with DeMicco and Jeffords utilizing and blending multiple formats and styles seamlessly to illustrate not only the story but the inner landscapes of the people within that story. So Andres’s romantic longings are rendered as striking 2D geometric fantasies, while Gabi’s power anthem about the joys of bouncing to the beat of her own drum is depicted as a hyper-kinetic fever-dream, climaxing in a skyscraper sized Gabi clutching a tiny Vivo like a reversed King Kong scenario.
It helps that the most expressive animation is paired with Miranda’s songs, as that man just does not miss on that front. As in Miranda’s last animated masterwork, Moana, every single song is a winner, and they’re scattered liberally throughout the film. This isn’t that Disney Animation BS where the musicals stop being musical with a half hour to go. Oh no, this is a capital-M MUSICAL, with the songs being an integral element of the story, the window into the emotions of each character, and the lynchpin of the film’s themes. There’s no song you’ll want to skip on a rewatch, and those no song you could cut and leave the story unaffected.
Miranda sets himself an incredible challenge on the musical front, as the entire film is built around the performance of Andres’s final song. It’s so dangerous to build a piece of art around how magical and special another piece of art is supposed to be (remember Studio 60?) and this could easily have blown up in Team Vivo’s face if the final song and performance was lackluster.
Without spoiling anything…nah.
Not only does that all-important final number bring the house down, but DeMicco and Jeffords’s staging of it brings together the impossible possibilities afforded by both the musical genre and the animation format to deliver a stunning visual encapsulation of the power of music, of art, to connect us to our loved ones, from the ones who are gone to the ones who remain. The things we share with the people we love keep them alive and by our side, no matter how cruel the world might get.
I went into Vivo expecting to be charmed by it, as Lin-Manuel Miranda is one of my favorite working artists in any medium. I did not expect to be completely charmed and utterly flattened by the cartoon with the singing monkey who sings, and yet when that final song plays, there was no question that the movie had earned every tear it wrenched out of my head.
Vivo, while being as fun and funny as you could ever want from an all-ages aimed animated film, still manages to capture something so delicate, so precious, that I wept to feel it, and then rejoiced to be able to feel it so deeply.
What a difference one song can make.