Netflix and Sony Pictures Animation’s partnership has been thriving. With The Mitchells vs. The Machines and Wish Dragon out this year, Vivo has some big shoes to fill. Directed by Kirk DeMicco, co-directed by Brandon Jeffords, and written by Quiara Alegria Hudes (In the Heights), Vivo is an adventurous musical that follows an adorable kinkajou on a journey to deliver a song to his cherished owner’s long-lost love.
With a strong voice cast featuring Lin-Manuel Miradra as Vivo the kinkajou, the iconic Juan de Marcos as Andrés, musical legend Gloria Esefan as Marta Sandoval, newcomer Ynairaly Simo as Gabi, and Zoe Saldaña as Gabi’s mother Rosa, the film is vibrant and melodious. There is no shortage of animal entertainment in the film either, with Michael Rooker as a villainous Everglades python, Brian Tyree Henry and Nicole Byer also star as a pair of spoonbills.
The film follows its eponymous character Vivo, who spends his days playing music to the crowds in a lively square in Havana with his owner Andrés. Though they may not speak the same language, Vivo and Andrés are the perfect duo through their common love of music. They entertain, the thrive, and they’re family.
When tragedy strikes shortly after Andrés receives a letter from the famous Marta Sandoval, inviting him – her old partner – to her farewell concert with the hope of reconnecting, it’s up to Vivo to deliver a message that Andrés never could: A song entitled “Para Marta.” A confession of love, that he had held onto since Marta left Cuba for Miami, the song serves as the connective tissue of the film between characters and generations. To complete his journey, Vivo will need the help of Andrés’ niece Gabi, an energetic girl who dances to the beat of her own offbeat drum – no matter what anyone around her thinks.
Throughout the entire film, music serves as a language to connect people and a method can share emotional connections when people are worlds and lives apart. Music also serves as a time capsule, songs capture our memories and the depth of our heart at any given time. It’s those emotions that can also be channeled into an intimate goodbye. That power to say goodbye regardless of the circumstances is the most powerful element of Vivo. That is where the film shines, and it does so because of the connection between Vivo and Andrés; although we only get small moments showcasing it.
In truth, while Gabi and her eccentricities and independence are endearing to a point, her relationship with Vivo is less moving than the love we see between Vivo and Andrés. While the film we have is an adventure between the two, I found it hard to not miss Andrés all the times he wasn’t on screen. I understand the choices, but I can’t help but imagine what else could have been showcased. This is due in large part to the lack of exploration given to the relationship between Gabi and her father, who passed away. We see hints of sadness and grief, but just hints, that pop up and leave. The parallel between Vivo and Gabi is attempted but never driven home.
It also has to be said that Sony’s animation is once again a stunning feat. The blending animation styles and the way color is used in the film are the key standouts. When we first meet Vivo, Havana is alive with a bright beauty, but when tragedy hits, it’s as if the life has been sucked out of the square. It’s a visual encapsulation of the emotion of the script that just works. Additionally, the strong use of neon colors, particularly in Miami is striking. The only flaw I find with the animation is variance of skin tones that Marta has throughout the film. Visually an homage to the great and magnanimous Celia Cruz in hair and fashion choices, Marta is a homage to the beauty of Cuban music and life. That said, it’s a bit jarring to see a character based on the Afro-Cubana icon change skin tone, ultimately appearing extremely fair skinned in the film’s finale. I can understand the choice because she is voice by Estefan but, when in one animation she is the same tone as Andres and in the next lighter than Gabi, it’s hard not to call it out.
With all of that though, Vivo is still a gorgeous animated film with catchy songs that capture both the classic music of Cuba from Andrés and the music of a younger generation with synth and auto-tune in Gabi. There is a song for everyone to sing and dance to. More importantly, it’s a story with a journey that is long and hard-won, and in a way is a beautiful metaphor for letting go and saying goodbye. When I sit with the film I can take that away. However, it’s a message that is hidden in eccentricities that make it hard to find for some viewers. But that shouldn’t stop you and your family from pressing play on this one.
Vivo is streaming exclusively on Netflix now.
- Vivo - 6.5/106.5/10
With all of that though, Vivo is still a gorgeous animated film with catchy songs that capture both the classic music of Cuba from Andrés and the music of a younger generation with synth and auto-tune in Gabi. There is a song for everyone to sing and dance to.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.