Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated PG, 1 hour and 38 minutes
Directed by: Kirk DeMicco
VIVO is a vibrant, electric musical adventure that features a soundtrack as diverse in its sound as the artistry of the animation displayed, combining 3D and a small sampling of 2D segments. Director Kirk DeMicco’s tale centered on an exotic kinkajou traveling from Cuba to Florida to restore his owner’s lost legacy is filled with charm, pathos and exuberance. It’s a dazzling, immersive world inhabited by well-drawn characters and their heartfelt struggles.
On any given day in a bustling plaza in Havana, Cuba, Andrés (voiced by Juan de Marcos) enraptures and enthralls the crowd with catchy tunes and his magnetic, musically-inclined kinkajou Vivo (voiced by Lin-Manuel Miranda). The dynamic duo are united within the notes and chords of their clave rhythms through a long-standing friendship formed when Andrés rescued and named Vivo. They share the perfect life together until a letter arrives from Andrés’ first musical partner/ unrequited lost love, Marta Sandaval (voiced by Gloria Estefan), beckoning him to see her final concert in Miami. As Andrés prepares for a second chance, much to Vivo’s chagrin, tragedy strikes, causing Vivo to answer the hero’s call and continue Andrés’ journey on his own.
With orders to deliver Andrés’ final song to Marta, Vivo hitches a ride with an unwitting soul: Andrés cherubic, purple-haired, non-conformist niece Gabi (voiced by Ynairaly Simo). She’s everything Vivo isn’t: clumsy, unruly and with no discernable sense of rhythm despite moving the beat of her own drum. Their worlds are aesthetically captured differently: Vivo is classically grounded with warm and welcoming lighting, and Gabi’s color palette and design are far more modern, girly and imaginative. In “My Own Drum,” we glimpse into her mind where stuffed animals become as big as Thanksgiving Day parade balloons and ghosts of her deceased pets awaken with the sound of her recorder played off-key.
Yet, Gabi instantly connects to Vivo’s plight as she too has recently lost someone she loves – her father. She’s been having a hard time fitting in with kids her own age, something her mother Rosa (voiced by Zoe Saldana) frets about in addition to being at her wit’s end with her headstrong daughter. As the pair head from Key West to Miami on a hope and a prayer (and with the aforementioned sheet music), their road trip adventure leads their unlikely friendship to finally get in sync.
From the musical stylings provided by Miranda and longtime collaborator Alex Lacamoire, to the stage-inspired story supplied by DeMicco and co-screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes (IN THE HEIGHTS), the filmmakers hit notes of melancholy and poignancy with deft skill and craftsmanship. There are no villains. There are only obstacles that need to be pushed through. Unlike many of its ilk, it doesn’t hand-wave at the more emotional moments, spending an appropriate amount of time for those to land and ring true. Same goes for the more uplifting and humorous overtones. Though the song placement follows a predictable path, the eclectic sound stylings – which include reggaeton, salsa, warasa, rumba and rap – blend perfectly, cohering in catchy melodies and lyrics that propel story and character dynamics. Themes revolving around courage, heritage, and embracing your quirks aren’t exactly new concepts, but are subtly reawakened in this narrative context, reinforcing the humorous, heart-filled hero’s journey.
That’s not to say this gem isn’t free from flaws. While it’s funny when the head of the Sand Dollars, an eco-conscious group Gabi is forced to join, lectures their teacher on his use of plastic bags and gas-guzzling, most of their shenanigans don’t work. The reasons why the Sand Dollars obsessively tail Gabi and Vivo smack of contrivance. It stalls when Vivo and Gabi find themselves trekking through the Everglades, where the two meet more characters like two lovelorn spoonbills (voiced by Brian Tyree Henry and Nicole Byer), who get a song, and slippery, slinky snake Lutador (voiced by Michael Rooker). They do serve a purpose to reinforce themes about bravery and selfless altruism, but also divert from the momentum of the mission at hand.
There’s a lot of irreverence to pick things up again, from the tough bus driver (whose “not on my watch” becomes the film’s long-running gag) to the sly dig at Jimmy Buffet when the score parodies his patented sound as Vivo walks through town admiring the synthetic flamingos. The signature sonic identity and the interconnected, eye-popping visuals give the picture an undeniable, compelling strength. It’s sweetly satisfying in all the right ways.
VIVO debuts on Netflix starting on August 6.