“What difference can one song make?” asks “Vivo,” a super-saturated, instant-classic musical cartoon from Kirk DeMicco, director of “The Croods,” featuring a whole bunch of catchy new songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda — a man who’s spent his career proving just how impactful clever music can be. In fact, it was Miranda who made Disney’s “Moana” so memorable a few years back (marking his maiden voyage into animation). Here, he builds on that experience while also playing the lead character, Vivo, a Cuban kinkajou with the capacity to dance, rap and move all the merch you can imagine.
A kinka-what, you ask? These big-eyed, long-tailed relatives of the raccoon family are so readymade for cartoon cutesification, it’s amazing the tropical tree-dwelling species has eluded the animation spotlight until now (even so, this one is not so iconic as to close the door on others in the future). Give the critter a green bandana and a tiny chapeau, and he’s practically irresistible — especially when it’s Miranda doing the voice, as Vivo dances for tourists’ donations in Havana’s iconic Plaza Vieja.
For those keeping score at home, that means this summer brings not one, but two musicals from the hotter-than-hot “Hamilton” creator (with Miranda’s adaptation of “Tick, Tick … Boom!” to come in the fall), and though “In the Heights” may have gotten most of the attention, there’s a good chance this peppy computer-animated Netflix offering may wind up being more widely seen in the long run. That’s no knock against “In the Heights,” but “Vivo” is strategically contrived to hit audiences’ pleasure spots, blending a grown-up-friendly story of a Latin-music couple whose careers took them in separate directions with all the hyper-caffeinated comedy action the kiddos expect from the medium. Plus, the songs build on one another, hooking in your head and snowballing as the movie develops.
Up front, “Vivo” introduces its title character as a sidekick of sorts, accompanying an elderly guitar player named Andrés (voiced by Cuban musician Juan de Marcos) who strums the streets of Havana. Where organ grinders train a monkey to panhandle, Andrés has Vivo, an endearing energy ball who passes the hat while playing the flute, drums and maracas in the film’s rapid-tempo opening number. These two make a terrific duo, and we grow to love them even more a few minutes later, after Andrés receives a letter from Marta (Gloria Estefan), the woman with whom he started his career — and for whom a flame still burns steady in his heart.
Decades earlier, Marta got an offer to perform at the Mambo Cabana in Miami, and instead of telling her how he felt, Andrés stepped aside and let Marta follow her dreams. Now she has decided to retire, sending her old partner an invitation to perform at her farewell concert. But before Andrés can make the trip, he … well, you’ll see — a twist that could have been disastrous, if the movie had handled it any less gracefully. As presented, it delivers just the first-act heartstring twang animated audiences have been seeking since “Up,” while shifting the responsibility of delivering Andrés’ most personal song onto Vivo’s tiny shoulders.
But how’s a kinkajou supposed to get from Havana to Florida? Enter Andrés’ niece, Gabi (newcomer Ynairaly Simo), who looks like an escapee from a wacky Nickelodeon cartoon with her punky pink hair and oversize purple specs. Once Vivo hitches a ride back to her home in Key West, the movie takes a hard turn into a different tone entirely — not necessarily a bad thing, but a pretty drastic change from the gorgeous Cuban cityscapes and dazzlingly retro visual design of the “Mambo Cabana” musical number that came before. Gabi bounces to the beat of “My Own Drum,” a Kidz Bop-style performance that makes an ideal anthem for self-identifying misfits everywhere. Still, it looks and sounds so different from the music that precedes it, the effect is a bit jarring.
That’s exactly what “Vivo” has in mind, as the script by DeMicco and “In the Heights” co-writer Quiara Alegría Hudes tries to establish a reluctant-buddy dynamic between the kinkajou and this weird kid. What Miranda does brilliantly here is introduce seemingly conflicting musical themes that will end up working together later in the film — so even though audiences can anticipate that Vivo and Gabi will bond eventually, it’s tough to predict exactly how their clashing sounds will manage to create harmony for the big finale.
But first, the trip to Miami requires Gabi to defy her mother (Zoe Saldaña) and hit the road sans chaperone. A risky detour through the Florida Everglades recalls “The Rescuers” at times, though the movie freshens the formula by presenting a trio of overzealous Sand Dollar Scouts as the biggest threat to the mission’s success. Miranda keeps the new music coming, whether introducing characters — including Brian Tyree Henry as a daffy spoonbill — or rapping Vivo’s way out of tight spots.
Produced by Sony Pictures Animation, the film boasts the rich, professional look of first-rate computer animation, even if “Vivo” plays by a more conventional stylebook than the studio’s recent breakthroughs “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” The character designs are fine, if not especially inspired (including that of Vivo, whose huge eyes would’ve been cuter without all that white space).
Instead of inventing a new look for the entire film, DeMicco and his design team push certain sequences, most notably a run-in with a noise-averse python and the aforementioned “Mambo Cabana,” a 2D interlude in which fluorescent nightclub colors pop against pitch-black backgrounds. It’s Miranda’s Latin-centered music that gives the project much of its personality, but in scenes like these, the visuals really sing and “Vivo” truly comes alive.