Vivo starts strong under Lin-Manuel’s distinctive brand, but veers into the realm of recycle in its disappointing back half.
Few performers are more divisive in our present pop culture landscape than Lin-Manuel Miranda. This likely has to do with the line he toes between clever and cornball — this is the dude who wrote “My Eliza’s expecting me. Not only that, my Eliza’s expecting!” after all — and both his tonal and thematic pitches register in the realm of emotional maximalism. This temperament can lead to wild vacillations in the quality of his output, as evinced in his two most visible authorships: In the Heights is the work of Miranda’s then-half-formed artistic character, an effort fairly balanced between its pleasures and its faceplants; Hamilton (unfairly maligned by the revisionist- and zeitgeist-averse — what is history if not accepted fiction?) more successfully realizes his brand of elevated schmaltz, a melange of myth, record, and imagination rocketed into grandiosity thanks to the aural histrionics of musical theater. In other words, it’s all perfectly Broadway. What likely causes so many to nope the fuck out, then, is his cocksure puckishness, the impression of a knowing irreverence for form and tradition, and the inextricability of the man from the brand from the art. Call it genius, call it mawkish; it’s very hard to be ambivalent.
That’s to say, Miranda’s sojourn into animated studio cinema makes all the sense in the world. Beyond the regurgitative nature of modern American art, it’s still no surprise that Disney films have been regularly adapted for the Broadway stage for the past few decades, as there are obvious similarities in the rudiment of such works: both cut a swath of extreme feeling (the form’s built-in cheat code, of sorts), emotions swelling alongside the choruses, tied to a narrative through expository lyricism, and punctuated by catchy, ostentatious tunes. Without overemphasizing that point or drawing too explicit of parallels, it’s easy to understand how this present marriage works: studios are able to bank on the cultural megalith that is Miranda and his particular, recognizable earworm sound, and the performer gets to keep his saccharine songwriting chops sharp with minimal risk to his artistic integrity or product (animated flops have never had any bearing on one’s future prospects). Moana represented his first such animated film foray, and anyone under the age of 15 and their parents can attest to its endless Spotify spins. And up next, the multi-hyphenate will serve as composer on Disney Animation’s 60th feature film, Encanto (out in November), followed by that studio’s The Little Mermaid live-action remake, where he will be co-writing new material with original composer Alan Menken.
But for now, Miranda has taken another detour, this time jogging from Disney to Netflix by way of Sony Pictures Animation, the studio that has played home to a number of donkey-brained animated franchises, including The Smurfs, Surf’s Up, and Hotel Transylvania. Their latest film, Vivo, then, has to be regarded as a considerable uptick in quality — for a while at least. Competently directed by Kirk DeMicco, Vivo nonetheless feels like the Miranda show, bearing his unmistakable stamp; he lends his distinctive voice to the title character, and his songs are on the whole much more reminiscent of his theater work here than they were in the more Disney-traditional Moana soundtrack. Which means they’re also more identifiably Miranda. Indeed, the film opens with a musical number performed by Andrés (Juan de Marcos González), a Havanan street musician, and Vivo (Miranda), his kinkajou best pal and the “monkey” to his “organ grinder” routine (and who also raps, but as his speaking is later shown to be perceived by humans as mere chittering, this point’s pretty conceptually hilarious). It’s both the film’s best track — blending traditional Cubano music with Miranda’s patented, parent-friendly form of hip hop — and its most diegetically challenging: it establishes an immediate question of the musician’s work regarding how well his super-syllabic, hyper-literate, triple-rhyming style translates to children’s cinema, the open-tap tempo seeming like it would be a tough undertaking for young audiences to process in real time. But one has to imagine creative control was fully handed over, and the film’s early successes feel like a direct result of this: there’s a delicacy to the first act, similar to something like Up, playing neatly to Miranda’s strength for tragedy.
Also similar to that Pixar flick is Vivo’s subsequent movement into adventuring after an early bid at pathos. Up’s opening has been canonized in the world of animation, and while that sets a high standard that Vivo never reaches, it’s the disparity between the former’s relatively stable remainder and the latter’s plummeting back-half that is more illustrative of the quality difference here. As Andrés’ punky, purple-haired grand-niece joins the titular honey bear on the film’s token quest (to seek out the elderly gent’s long-ago love), the relative elegance and distinction of Vivo’s first half gives way to a muddle of stock animation beats: here, some “comic relief” in the form of a pair of kooky, star-crossed spoonbills, candy-colored musical breakdowns, soft villains in the form of some milk monitor-type scouts and a big ‘ol snake, and a bit of “parents just don’t understand” lessons to be learned. It’s just more of the same anonymous story that gets churned out a couple times per year in kids’ films, a real bummer after Vivo’s idiosyncratic opening. Add to that the film’s adequate but uninspired visual design — the current style of bulbous computer animation, occasionally glossed up with neon splashes and 2D interludes, but nowhere evincing the Roger Deakins credit as visual consultant (yes, seriously) — and you’re left with a film that feels like the end of a carnival ride: a fading rush of fun met with a lot of waiting around until you can disembark. But in fairness, viewers should see the letdown coming: a film that pitches Florida as some sort of utopian destination, like a visit to the state itself, can only ever end in disappointment.
You can currently stream Kirk DeMicco’s Vivo on Netflix.