As part of Netflix’s recent quarterly update, the ever-expanding streamer bragged that this last year saw their biggest animated film to date, yet another sign of their all-conquering versatility. But despite a concerted effort to increase in-house animation, the movie in question was tellingly not one of their own creation but rather a Covid acquisition, made and primed by Sony for a big-screen release but panic-sold when cinemas shuttered.
The Mitchells vs the Machines was a deserving chart-topper; funny and inventive and of a markedly different league than any of Netflix’s self-made cartoons. But its success came at a notable price, a stinging reminder that even their dedicated viewership can sniff out the real butter (a point underlined this summer by the reported success of Amazon’s sci-fi thriller The Tomorrow War which was bought from Paramount). Earlier this year Sony also decided to offload their summer adventure Vivo, with Netflix waiting with an open door and an open chequebook. In the wake of the Mitchells milestone, it launches with high expectations attached, expectations that edge further toward the sky with the involvement of Hamilton’s man wonder Lin-Manuel Miranda, stepping out of his Disney deal to grace Sony with his voice, songs and brand appeal.
But while Vivo shares the expensive sheen and general good nature of Sony’s last hand-me-down, it falls short on just about everything else, a sweet and colourful musical adventure that isn’t quite sweet and colourful enough, coasting on simple pleasures that fade as soon as the music stops. While Mitchells was determined to blaze its own trail, Vivo is far more interested in cribbing from the Pixar playbook, especially in its opening stretch which tries its darndest to eke emotion out of the kind of eccentric set-up that we’ve come to know so well. It’s Havana, Cuba, and an elderly musician, Andrés (legendary Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González), performs in a local square with his trusty kinkajou, AKA honey bear, Vivo (Miranda). While Vivo’s sing-rap can be understood by us the viewers (even if at times we wish that weren’t the case), to the humans that surround him, all they hear is a squeak. But it’s a squeak with rhythm and the two make for an unusual yet effective pairing.
When Andrés’s old singing partner Marta (Gloria Estefan) gets back in touch after years of silence offering him the chance to join her onstage at her final concert in Miami, he sees an opportunity: to finally confess the feelings he was never brave enough to when they were young in the form of a specially crafted love song. But tragedy strikes and Vivo has to make the trek by himself to honour his old friend for the last time.
The opening combination of unusual dynamic and heart-grabbing tragedy, along with some dazzling animation, might be Pixar by numbers but Miranda’s earnest musical numbers edge us closer to old school Disney and as The Croods director Kirk DeMicco tries to coerce his film in the middle of a Venn diagram of both, he struggles to give it enough of its own personality. Like so many animated films, the narrative hinges on a manic quest (as Vivo heads to Miami with the help of an idiosyncratic young girl) but it’s not one that feels imaginative or exciting enough for us to get carried along with it. The locations are minimal, the stakes medium and the characters they meet along the way not quite amusing or distinctive enough. Even Vivo himself is just a standard-issue cute animal and Miranda’s energetic sing-rap mixed with his hand-on-heart show tunes is an acquired taste that would perhaps be easier to acquire if the songs themselves were that good (the final number, having been teased since the start, is frustratingly forgettable).
The eye-popping gloss of Vivo will probably lure in impressive numbers for Netflix (the animation itself is generic but impressive) but in a genre that promises so much magic, the spell cast by Miranda and co is a brief one.
Vivo is out in select cinemas on 30 July and on Netflix on 6 August