If it feels like Lin-Manual Miranda is everywhere these days, that is because he is. That’s meant as an observation, not a judgment of any kind. Given the pandemic has pushed back some releases a year or more, it’s not entirely surprising that Miranda has become ubiquitous. Capitalizing on the award-winning success of Hamilton, he has contributed songs to Moana and brought his pre-Hamilton musical, In the Heights, to the big screen. Now, in a collaboration with Sony Pictures Animation and his In the Heights collaborator, Quiara Alegría Hudes, there’s Vivo — an infectiously enthralling, family-oriented animated musical overflowing with earworm-worthy traditional, Caribbean (Afro-Cuban) songs and modern, hip-inflected ones.
Set in a contemporary Havana defined by perpetually bright skies, pink clouds, and pastel-coloured, colonial architecture, Vivo initially centres on Andrés (voiced by Juan de Marcos González), a talented street musician entering the twilight of his golden years, and the title character, Vivo (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a unique kinkajou (an arboreal South American mammal) whose talents include singing, dancing, and playing musical instruments. In a familiar conceit for the animated genre, the audience hears Vivo speak and sing, but in-film characters only hear his squeaks and screeches. Apparently, though, they can see Vivo dance and play instruments, enough to make Vivo an international sensation (except somehow he’s not).
For Vivo, nothing makes him happier than living and performing with Andrés, but unfortunately, all good things come to an end. In Vivo’s case, he finds himself without his caretaker, alone but not exactly lonely, when Andrés’ vivacious grand-niece, Gabi (Ynairaly Simo), suddenly appears in Havana along with her mother, Rosa (Zoe Saldana). With Andrés incapacitated and Andrés’ one and only love, Marta Sandoval (Gloria Estefan), performing one last time in Miami before she permanently retires, Vivo becomes the caretaker of Andrés’ previous, handwritten love song — a song Andrés wrote decades earlier when Marta left Cuba for a musical career in the States. Vivo ultimately hitches a ride with Gabi back to Florida and from Gabi’s home, Key West, to Miami on the day and night of Marta’s last performance.
Vivo sets up the title character and Gabi as opposites, a melange of old and new influences with Vivo representing Cuba’s rich musical past and Gabi standing in for the Latinx experience in the U.S. Gabi is also set up as a sympathetic outsider. She dyes her hair purple, plays her musical instruments, and generally prefers her own company over the eco-obsessed Sand Dollar Scouts her mother has pushed her into joining. Like Vivo, though, Gabi loves music and, almost as importantly, like Gabi, Vivo’s mourning his separation from Andrés, the only father figure he’s ever known. For Gabi, she’s mourning the pre-film loss of her father, a fact the filmmaking team led by director-screenwriter Kirk DeMicco, co-director Brandon Jeffords, and Hudes and Miranda explore with the delicacy and sensitivity the subject matter deserves, especially in a family-oriented film like Vivo.
There are more than a few surprises in store for Vivo and Gabi as they undertake the delivery of Andrés’s love song to Marta. Initially, the Sand Dollar Scouts function as obstacles or antagonists, eager to “save” Vivo from Gabi and return him to his native South American habitat. In a welcome plot turn, however, the Sand Dollar Scouts and Gabi become united over shared obstacles, problems, and dangers as they take the road — or rather the waterways — less traveled to make the journey from Key West to Miami in record time. All the while Rose pursues her missing daughter and Marta prepares for her last concert, initially unaware of Andrés’s inability to attend the performance. All stories and mini-stories, of course, eventually converge in a spectacular, neon-drenched Miami that looks less like an American city than a virtual one out of a never-made Tron sequel.
Visually, Vivo continues the hot streak that began with Sony Pictures Animation’s Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in 2018 and continued with The Mitchells vs. the Machines earlier this year. From distinctive, engaging character designs to richly detailed, textured backgrounds, and eye-popping lighting partially thanks to Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, and on through Miranda’s uniformly strong songs, Vivo offers one of the most rewarding, family-oriented experiences this year or any other year.