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What begins in lively and vibrant fashion as the title would suggest gets bogged down in a literal and figurative swamp in “Vivo.”
The animated, family-friendly musical adventure from director and co-writer Kirk DeMicco (“The Croods”) and co-director Brandon Jeffords offers a rich and colorful sense of place, particularly during its early passages in Cuba. When it’s about the power of music to transform and connect people across years and miles, the film is at its strongest. But when it becomes a road trip movie with the characters encountering various obstacles en route to their destination of Miami, “Vivo” loses its way.
The multitalented Lin-Manuel Miranda provides the songs and the voice of the titular role: a charismatic and wide-eyed kinkajou who busks on the streets of Havana. Most of the movie’s music carries the catchy rhythms and clever wordplay that are the signatures of the man who created “Hamilton” and “In the Heights.” An infectious highlight is the upbeat, Latin-flavored opening number, which Vivo performs to an appreciative crowd alongside his human companion, the aging musician Andres (a gentle Juan de Marcos of Buena Vista Social Club). The two have a warm and easy chemistry, and the furry dude couldn’t be cuter in his tiny hat and neckerchief, rapping and playing the bongo. Seriously, you may be seeing a bunch of Vivo backpacks and T-shirts when kids return to school in a few weeks.
To us—and, as we’ll find out later, to other animals—he’s intelligible, but all the rest of the world hears are adorable chirping and chittering sounds. Still, Vivo has a deep emotional connection with Andres, a tender soul who still pines for the one who got away. His former performing partner, Marta Sandoval (voiced by a gracious Gloria Estefan), fled for the United States decades ago to fulfill her dreams of stardom. An invitation to reunite with her in Miami for her farewell concert enlivens old memories and yearnings for what might have been; his recollection of the melancholy, melon-hued sunset the day her plane took off is swoonworthy. Similarly, flashbacks rendered in traditional, two-dimensional animation add a romantic, wistful feel compared to the contours and textures of the present-day scenes.
Vivo is afraid to leave the insular familiarity of his Havana plaza for a trip to the big city. But when tragedy hits—which the screenplay from DeMicco and “In the Heights” writer Quiara Alegría Hudes handles with great delicacy and grace—he must find the bravery to make the journey and deliver one last song from Andres to Marta. A visit from Andres’ niece, Rosa (Zoe Saldana), and her daughter, Gabi (energetic newcomer Ynairaly Simo), gives Vivo the opportunity to stowaway to Key West. And Gabi, a perky, purple-haired tween who’s a bit of a misfit—as we’re told repeatedly in her anthem about marching to the beat of her own drum—is so starved for friendship that she’s thrilled to make the 160-mile trek with him. She also hopes to make music with Vivo, which harkens to a loss in her own family.
But “Vivo” becomes far less interesting the farther it gets from the strength of those heartwarming musical origins. Once it decides it’s a wacky action movie rather than a sweet romantic comedy—presumably to keep the youngest viewers engaged—the pacing ironically slows and meanders. An overlong interlude in the film’s midsection finds Gabi and Vivo stranded in the Everglades, encountering all manner of animal—some friendly, some predatory. Brian Tyree Henry and Nicole Byer provide the voices of a couple of beautiful but nervous birds who fall awkwardly in love with each other, and the movie grinds to a halt to watch them sing and fly. Michael Rooker’s talents go to waste lending his menacing growl as a giant snake who hates noise for some reason. And a trio of officious and insistent Girl Scout types, whom Gabi desperately wants to avoid, add nothing to the proceedings as they track her down and try to make her sell cookies. (Their bossy, blonde leader is the spitting image of Reese Witherspoon, though.)
All these characters do is insert chaos and serve as filler, and they make zero sense if “Vivo” is meant to be a race against the clock to get the song into Marta’s hands before she leaves the stage. Yes, yes, I know. The journey is the destination, and this one’s meant to be all about facing challenges and overcoming fears. It’s rather generic kids-movie stuff, thematically. But the closer the characters get to Miami, the less urgent their mission feels. And perhaps most frustrating of all, the tune that’s crucial to driving the narrative ends up being one of the weakest and most forgettable.
Now playing on Netflix.
Lin-Manuel Miranda as Vivo (voice)
Juan de Marcos González as Andrés (voice)
Gloria Estefan as Marta Sandoval (voice)
Ynairaly Simo as Gabi (voice)
Zoe Saldana as Rosa (voice)
Michael Rooker as Lutador (voice)
Paloma Morales as Croqueta Lady