The spirit and heart of a place can’t quite be captured without physically being there. Yet films offer a pathway to areas that most audiences will never travel to, and the best way to convey the feeling of a unique location or specific community is to show the energy and values infused into residents. What they share with visitors should be the best of what a place that means so much to them has to offer. The new animated musical comedy Vivo does that masterfully, showcasing a taste of Havana, Cuba through song and soul.
Vivo is a kinkajou, best described as a rainforest honey bear, who lives in Havana and spends his days regaling locals with his musical talents and the assistance of his owner, Andrés. They have a great routine and Vivo loves his life. That stability is forever changed when a letter arrives from Marta Sandoval, a famous singer who wants to reunite with her longtime partner for her farewell concert in Miami. When Andrés is unable to deliver a love letter – in song form – that he wrote years earlier, Vivo takes it upon himself to do so, reluctantly jumping into the suitcase of Andrés’ grand-niece Gabi to make the trip to the United States.
This movie is really a lot of fun, and its success is due in large part to the establishment of ground rules for what its characters can’t do and a lack of emphasis on whatever else feels more fantastical. For instance, Vivo, voiced by Lin-Manuel Miranda, sings and talks so that the audience can hear, but to the human characters in the film, he just sounds like an animal making noise. Other animals, however, can understand him and communicate directly. As with so many animated films, the laws of gravity and the actual measurements of space and time are more flexible, allowing the journey to be even more appealing given that it’s not bound by traditional limitations.
This film opens very strongly with an introductory song and only becomes more vibrant as it continues. Fans of Hamilton and In the Heights will be thrilled to recognize not only Miranda’s voice but also his style of music, one that features fast lyrics and buoyant dance sequences. It’s also not all the same, as demonstrated in particularly fabulous fashion by Gabi, voiced by the marvelously impressive thirteen-year-old Ynairaly Simo in her film debut. Her signature song, “My Own Drum,” includes the catchy refrain “I bounce to the beat of my own drum,” indicating her uniqueness and lack of interest in conforming to what society expects, which makes her a perfect partner for the very different but equally individually-minded Vivo.
The framing of this film’s narrative is similar to so many animated adventures before it, but it’s a formula that works, and one that works exceptionally well. There’s unexpressed love, nature-knowledgeable Girl Scouts, and even egotistical bus drivers, with a tremendous array of talent providing voices for all of the characters, among them Zoe Saldana, Juan de Marcos, Brian Tyree Henry, Nicole Byer, Michael Rooker, and Gloria Estefan. Though Vivo does encounter unexpected obstacles along his path to try to find Marta and give her the music that will communicate how Andrés felt about her, this film doesn’t have a dull moment and is entirely engaging for the whole of its ninety-five-minute runtime.
Vivo is categorized in the Representation Matters Collection for Netflix, which affirms its evident commitment to showcasing a culture that feels special and singular, expressed vividly through Miranda’s musical style. The animation is beautiful and vibrant, and this film deserves a place alongside Coco, Over the Moon, Abominable, and other recent winning explorations of communities across the world in positive, uplifting, and poetic ways.
Vivo premieres globally on Netflix on Friday, August 6th.