Review: Lin-Manuel Miranda soundtrack elevates colorful, yet familiar tale of ‘Vivo’

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Vivo'

It’s been a big year for Lin-Manuel Miranda, who sent a filmed stage version of “Hamilton” to Disney+ last summer and then released the film “In the Heights” to rave reviews this summer.

Now, Miranda returns to the animated realm for the colorful new musical “Vivo,” which Sony Pictures Animation dropped on Netflix Friday.

The story follows Vivo, a tropical rainforest mammal called a kinkajou, who performs in the town square of Havana, Cuba, with his beloved owner Andrés Hernández. Turns out, Andrés never got to express his true feelings for sweetheart Marta Sandoval before she left for America to become a music superstar. It becomes Vivo’s mission to bring his lyrics to Marta’s concert in Miami.

The voice cast includes the Latin American authenticity of Juan de Marcos González, a Cuban bandleader known for his work with the Buena Vista Social Club, and Gloria Estefan, who was born in Cuba before forming the Miami Sound Machine for a Grammy-winning career.

It also features Hollywood star power in Zoe Saldana (“Avatar,” “Guardians of the Galaxy”), who voices the concerned mother of Gabi, a rambunctious girl who becomes Vivo’s sidekick on the journey from Key West to Miami. The latter is voiced by 13-year-old Ynairaly Simo, who brings so much caffeinated energy that we believe she’d sneak off to a concert four hours away.

Still, it’s Miranda who does the heavy lifting, not only voicing the cute Vivo for Abu-in-“Aladdin”-style antics, but also providing the film its heart by belting Broadway-style numbers amid “Hamilton” raps for original songs that he wrote, backed by longtime collaborator Alex Lacamoire’s score.

The soundtrack kicks off with “One of a Kind,” establishing the bond between Vivo and Andrés (“You and I, we are one of a kind, keeping time, every time!”), while rapping his origin story (“You may be thinking, ‘What’s a kinkajou doing playing music in Cuba, don’t you like usually live in the rain forest?’ I fell on a ship in a crate as a baby, the next thing I knew I was somewhere new”).

Another standout song is “Keep the Beat” as Miranda belts showtune lyrics (“All I can do when the road bends is lean into the curve, and all I can do when the tank runs dry is see what’s in reserve”). Still, the one that will get stuck in your head after the film is “My Own Drum,” a catchy hip-hop track rapped by the 13-year-old Simo, who returns in the end credits with Missy Elliott.

Several of these songs unfold in neon dream sequences that are a bit busy and distracting. Director Kirk DeMicco and co-director Brandon Jeffords are far better when they slow down and allow our eye to scan the background renderings of bridges, aquariums and painted houses in Key West, or soak up the realistic bluish tint of nightclub lights in Miami.

Parents should be forewarned: There is some really heavy material early on in this movie, so you might want to have the “life and death” talk with your kids before naively streaming this on Netflix. Don’t let that scare you off, though: If they’ve seen “Bambi,” “The Land Before Time,” “The Lion King” or “Up,” your kids should be well-prepared to handle the emotions of “Vivo.”

How does one rank teardrops? “Vivo” is emotional, but you probably won’t cry as much as during the “Remember Me” finale of “Coco” (2017). In fact, “Vivo” feels like an attempt to copy the success of “Coco,” right down to its four-letter title and premise of a young musician embarking on a journey to find a famous Latin American singing star, only without the wonder of a magical guitar.

Other elements feel equally derivative, such as a pair of love-struck spoonbills (voiced by Brian Tyree Henry and Nicole Byer) who recall Nigel in “Finding Nemo” (2003) or Kevin in “Up” (2009), while a giant snake (voiced by Michael Rooker) recalls the slithering Kaa in “The Jungle Book” (1967).

Either way, it’s hard to reinvent the wheel when it’s all been done before in the animated genre. Even if “Vivo” doesn’t blaze a new trail, it’s a welcome addition to the genre with its Latinx casting and catchy musical numbers. It should be in the running for Best Animated Film, but I doubt it’ll win over “Luca,” “Raya and the Last Dragon” or its Sony sibling “The Mitchells vs. The Machines.”

3.5 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up