Lin-Manuel Miranda Gets Away With it Again with ‘Vivo’

A grab-bag of Cuban stereotypes from the woke era’s favorite entertainer

The second half of this year was meant to be a triumphant return for Lin-Manuel Miranda, but the results so far have been mixed. Hamilton opened up with the rest of Broadway last week, but has suffered poor returns. So it’s not terribly surprising that the Broadway League announced ahead of time they would not publish grosses for any shows this season. Hollywood set the film adaptation of Miranda’s In The Heights to be the big musical tentpole release of the summer, but it fell afoul of a controversy regarding actors with light skin playing its Afro-Latino characters. Though critics and fans alike received it warmly, In The Heights hasn’t even earned back its budget at the box office.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

The main bright spot for Miranda has been the animated Netflix film Vivo, which features Miranda as the voice of the titular kinkajou. Vivo has had fairly robust numbers on Netflix according to FlixPatrol–but as usual, a lack of detailed data makes the movie’s real streaming success difficult to gauge.

Lin-Manuel Miranda may not be as popular as you might think. To a certain type of person, he’s the most important creative American alive, but typical consumers have never heard of him. Relatively few people have actually seen Hamilton, but some of the most powerful people in this country, both in entertainment and politics, number among its greatest fans. In one particularly notorious case, Democratic Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum saw his campaign implode in 2018 in part because of a bizarre scandal where he illicitly accepted Hamilton tickets as a de facto bribe.

Miranda is in many ways the perfect encapsulation of the current woke era of popular culture. Hamilton is a musical about founder father Alexander Hamliton, but rapping people of color play him and his contemporaries. Despite the uncomfortable relationship the founding fathers had with slavery, the musical avoids discussing the topic at all to instead present them in a largely positive manner. This is a stark contrast to 1776, a musical which fifty years ago very bluntly critiqued the hypocrisy of nominally anti-slavery conventional delegates who benefited enormously from the slave trade.
Miranda’s work improves the visibility of minorities in popular culture without actually doing anything to address the underlying premises that led to their being invisible in the first place. This was the great irony of the In the Heights controversy. Despite aiming to be a celebration of Afro-Latino culture, the target audience was still quite clearly the older, whiter, show tunes-loving crowd. It’s not that big of an audience to begin with–but it’s one that likes to feel it’s that they’re engaging in cultural appreciation. Which by design, makes them not racist.
A Cuban stereotype of the soul

Which brings us to Vivo. Unlike the other two Lin-Manuel Miranda projects mentioned here, it’s not fair to call Vivo an exclusively Lin-Manuel Miranda-esque joint. He voices the title character and wrote the lyrics. But In the Heights libretto author Quiara Alegria Hudes wrote the story. Along with a white guy. And couple of other white guys directed the movie. But with Lin-Manuel Miranda front and center, with Cuba-inspired songs and storyline, a surface impression of Vivo definitely doesn’t give off the vibe of a typical animated movie.

But Vivo is surprisingly inaccurate. It depicts Havana as a sleepy rustic town in the middle of nowhere, nothing like the incredible hustle and bustle of Miami. A person, and most certainly a child, watching the movie would never guess that Havana has a population of over two million people. That’s the five times the population of Miami proper, and only a third the size of greater Miami.

Whether we should count the latter at all is ambiguous, given that Vivo the kinkajou starts his journey in the United States in an even more exurban location. His comical unfamiliarity with buses, a newfangled technology he had apparently not encountered in Cuba, gets in the way of his trek to Miami. Then there’s the huge stretch of time he spends in the Everglades, where Vivo the kinkajou runs afoul of an improbably gigantic python that looks and acts more like an anaconda.

These are nitpicky complaints that aesthetically speaking bothered me a lot less than how most of this arbitrary worldbuilding didn’t really serve any purpose in the narrative. Vivo is clearly aiming for the same pseudo-educational cultural experience that has become Lin-Manuel Miranda’s calling card. Yet, in many ways, it’s actually an even more antiquated view of Cuban culture than the stereotypes it’s aiming to replace. Vivo, musically and otherwise, has a strong similarity to the Buena Vista Social Club. The popular nineties group was itself a deliberate throwback to pre-Cuban Revolution musical styles. It’s really off-putting and weird to see such an unironic endorsement of this traditional culture as being the true Cuban culture a full generation after the Buena Vista Social Club’s heyday.

But as is the case with much of Lin-Manuel Miranda-style entertainment, it’s genuinely hard to tell whether the reactionary bent is intentional or just borne out of profound ignorance. Where people have critiqued Hamilton for its metaphorical whitewashing, and In the Heights for its literal whitewashing, no similar acknowledgment of the questionable implications of Vivo has been forthcoming since the movie’s release. That’s probably because, as a cartoon intended for children, people have judged Vivo  entirely on its quotient of bright and colorful images that adults tend to assume children find inherently amusing. It’s actually an almost perfect evolution of the Lin-Manuel Miranda form. Vivo is so childish and unpretentious that a person can’t really criticize it without seeming like a grump who can’t be satisfied. Or, worse, someone who just can’t stand to see people of color in an animated movie at all.

As big as the three summer Lin-Manuel Miranda projects may seem we aren’t actually done with him yet this year. He’ll be releasing the musical drama Tick, Tick…Boom! to Netflix in November and will be doing the music for the animated Disney flick Encanto later that month. Tick, Tick…Boom! is not a woke project, and his work with Encanto will be more similar to his role in Moana than Vivo. Still, you can expect both movies to do well critically just off the strength of his branding, even as that branding is becoming increasingly divorced from the man himself.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

11 thoughts on “Lin-Manuel Miranda Gets Away With it Again with ‘Vivo’

  • August 20, 2021 at 4:05 am
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    Been to Havana, have to say that this movie accurately portrays the city of Havana. Unfortunately. Because lin manuel sucks!

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  • September 8, 2021 at 2:46 am
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    I do have to admit that the critiques the movie do feel pretty nit-picky especially when it’s not even trying to make a poignant statement.
    It’s a harmless buddy cop movie about a kinkajou and a little girl trying to deliver a letter to an old man’s long lost love and that’s it.
    There’s nothing offensive in the movie to gawk at since most of it is just people dancing around to whatever song is going on, so yeah you do sound like a “grump” nitpicking this so hard

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  • September 8, 2021 at 3:51 am
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    I feel like this article is trying to knock Miranda down a peg without understanding why he’s popular to begin with.
    As a black person, I can tell you that the reason why LMM stuck out was because he was one of the first non-white composers to make a breakthrough in a predominantly white medium known as Broadway.
    Also, (slight tangent), but Hamilton is hardly a positive portrayal of the founders since its primary messages about the dangers of selfhood and now the main characters Pride essentially ends up ruining his life.
    Slavery is also mentioned throughout the play but it’s more pronounced and Thomas Jefferson’s number where he brags about being a free liberal mind all the while pushing around his slaves and gets called out for it later by Hamilton himself.
    As for Vivo, the movie was made over a decade ago but only recently came out so nothing it says it’s going to be culturally relevant to what Cuba’s dealing with today.

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  • September 8, 2021 at 5:31 am
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    I just want to feel like this review is necessarily passive-aggressive?
    LMM isn’t perfect but he’s done a lot for diversity and offered opportunities to marginalize people before was the cool liberal thing to do in Hollywood.
    I can’t speak to any accuracy of Vivo but it’s a cartoon which in itself are built on exaggeration so I wouldn’t expect something like that to be a one-one recollection of an entire country.

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    • September 8, 2021 at 10:03 am
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      You’re right- it is necessarily passive-aggressive, in the sense LMM’s ouvre is flawed in such a way a person can’t really go after it without sounding like a psycho. LMM has mastered the format of light, fluffy entertainment that feels profound without actually offering much substance. It’s already challenging enough for a critic to challenge the cinematic equivalent of junk food on merit. Throw in LMM’s reputation as an advocate for marginalized reputation, and predominantly white critics just get even more nervous.

      Really, the article is less about Vivo or LMM directly as it is about broader cultural trends in the twenties. We have increasingly lowered standards for major releases, sometimes quite literally in the form of box office numbers. Movies are good less because they’re challenging and more because they’re inoffensive. Creatives are valued less for their vision than for their ability to market. And critics bear a lot of responsiblity for this shift because they’re not pushing back against it, despite this being their job. Thank you for your feedback.

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      • September 8, 2021 at 11:16 am
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        I feel like even beyond the diversity there’s alot of depth to LMM’s works.
        Hamilton is a borderline-esoteric meditation on fame, ambition, human potential, and the value of one’s time on Earth.
        The main character’s journey is a cautionary tale of one’s own selfhood much like Macbeth before it.
        In The Heights likewise is about the importance of culture, dance, and heritage and these things are universal even if you aren’t related to immigrants.
        IMO, I feel like Miranda’s popularity has caused some to overlook how generally good his work is and that he’s not just popular because he provides “woke” entertainment and I feel like your article William reads as a rebuttal to a person who’s work you haven’t fully engaged with to properly critique.
        To clarify, I did listen to the podcast you had with Neil and it felt like you were going off of perceived notions you had about LMM rather than actually being engaged with any sort of critique of Vivo or otherwise.

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  • September 8, 2021 at 6:35 pm
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    This article is making an assessment while simultaneously not understanding its subject matter.
    Yes, diversity does play a role in Lin’s success but the main reason is that the themes in his works have a wide appeal worldwide.
    Just look at Vivo,it’s about the power of music- how it allows us to express ourselves, makes us immortal, how it touches us.
    This review doesn’t mention any of that and instead focuses on minor nitpicks that overall amount to little.
    It ironically make the same mistake it’s accusing the work and creator of.

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    • September 9, 2021 at 9:44 am
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      I disagree that Vivo is about the power of music. Very little of Vivo actually has anything to do with music. It’s only just barely even about the relationship between Vivo and Gabi because so much time is spent in the Everglades, where the two are separated. Vivo opens up with some very sweet sentiment about music, but once the title character arrives in Key West it only really matters as a plot device to motivate the lead characters to get to Miami.

      I’m actually inclined to agree with you that Lin is successful primarily because of his themes, not his image in regards to diversity. What makes the Lin Manuel Miranda odd is that most Broadway stars never really leave Broadway. It’s a very specific audience that hasn’t had mass appeal in quite some time. Even bigger names like Andrew Lloyd Weber and Stephen Schwartz aren’t as well-known as the works they’re famous for. Lin Manuel Miranda’s reputation as an avatar for improved diversity practices is what makes his name a brand in and of itself, in part because that reputation alone makes people far more reluctant to criticize his work the same they would something like Cats.

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  • September 9, 2021 at 3:47 pm
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    It very much is about the power of song.
    The characters each express themselves through various musical numbers and the plot largely revolves around getting Andres love Song to Martha Sandoval and the movie even closes with the Gabi and Vivo reprising Andres’ opening act.
    The thing about Miranda is that he became a breakout star because he was the first non-white lyricist to make this far.
    So yeah, him being a model minority plays a role in his success but as we’ve seen before that can only get you so far.
    He added a largely Urban feel to modern-day theater and pushed the medium further after it had grown stagnant so it sounds are pretty new to Broadway but also welcoming to people who may not be into show tunes.
    On top of all of that the themes of his Productions are universally understood so anybody can engage with them and identify with the protagonist or side characters.
    I literally have Japanese students who do covers of Hamilton songs

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    • September 9, 2021 at 6:52 pm
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      This surprises me, and makes me wonder whether your sample set is overly anecdotal based on people trying to learn English. For the sake of reference, musical theater in South Korea is widely advertised and still does lots of standards from Weber and Schwartz. Yet Miranda’s work is nowhere to be seen.

      There’s also the matter of In The Heights doing quite poorly at the international box office, but without the excuse of the colorism controversy or the simultaneous HBO Max release to explain the shortfall. Vivo was probably a success, although as a more collaborative production, as well as one that was dubbed in most territories, it’s also the work furthest from an appeal that could be directly attributed to Lin Manuel Miranda.

      Reply
  • September 10, 2021 at 12:05 pm
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    William, I’m assuming you must have never seen how big the Hamilton experience got?
    People all over the world were doing covers of it and that’s largely because it sounds more like traditional music that a youth would hear on the radio rather than something from West Side Story.
    The pro shot of the play was also a killer app for Disney+ and essentially carried it for most of 2020.
    ITH by comparison is a bit more obscure compared to its successor and releasing during a pandemic alongside Titans like Godzilla vs. Kong and various superhero movies on the horizon was going to be a tough uphill battle no matter what.
    However, Vivo is currently the number one most streamed movie on Netflix so really I guess it just has to do with the environment.
    Ultimately, I would say that Miranda is fairly popular and that’s why companies keep on using him.
    Things like hip hop and R& B are still relatively new to the entertainment sphere so there’s a lot of untapped potential there.

    Reply

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