Lin-Manuel Miranda’s gift with music is unparalleled. He has the unique ability to pair a rapid and clever turn of phrase with an infectious musical hook. The cadence of his voice conveys a longing and hopefulness which, it turns out, works if you are playing one of the founding fathers or an adorable animated animal.
Miranda is the perfect choice to voice the title character in the new Netflix movie Vivo. Vivo is a kinkajou, also known as “honey bear,” a rainforest animal in the raccoon family (although Vivo, with his jaunty hat and stylish scarf, is a lot cuter than a raccoon). Vivo spends his days performing with his owner Andrés (Juan de Marcos González) in Havana, Cuba. Vivo thinks his life and its comfortable predictability is perfect. (Viewers can understand Vivo, but to Andrés and everyone else in the movie, Vivo speaks in adorable coos and gibberish.)
One day Andrés gets a letter from his old love Marta Sandoval (Gloria Estefan) asking if he will perform with her one last time at her farewell performance in Miami. Andrés finds the love song he wrote for her years ago and decides he must get the song to her. Alas, a tragedy prevents Andrés from making this journey and Vivo decides he must leave the security of the world he knows to get this song to Marta.
Vivo’s travels take him from Havana to Key West to the Everglades to Miami. Along the way he meets Gabi (Ynairaly Simo), a confident, purple-haired 10-year-old who is not in the mood to be like all the other girls—especially when it comes to the Sand Dollar troop her mom has signed her up for. If there are villains in the movie, it’s weirdly a trio of this Sand Dollar troop’s members. The movie doesn’t call them Girl Scouts, but they wear some very familiar uniforms and are selling cookies with names like “Manatee Mintees” and “Dolphin D-Lites” so, you know, you do the math. Vivo portrays them as little environmental tyrants which is an odd creative decision from screenwriters Quiara Alegría Hudes and Kirk DeMicco, who also directs the film. I fully support Vivo wanting to celebrate Gabi’s self-confidence and non-conformity. I just don’t think we have to make fun of girls who enjoy being part of a troop in the process. Of course the trio (voiced by Katie Lowes, Olivia Trujillo and Lidya Jewett) are Gabi’s pals by the end of the movie but it’s a little bit of a rocky road to get there.
Gabi’s personal anthem, “My Own Drum,” is the highlight of the movie’s tunes. “I’m a wow in a world full of ho-hum,” she triumphantly sings as she declares herself to be “extra extra.” It’s a delightful and catchy song that every child, tween and teen should listen to (and will probably immediately find themselves singing along). There is real power in being yourself and owning your uniqueness. The song is the movie’s best and it’s easy to understand why the remix version featuring Missy Elliott plays over the closing credits.
The rest of the songs are equally delightful, if a little predictable. They are very, shall we say, on-brand for Miranda. His brand is a good one, but many tunes here sound repetitive. One song is even called “Running Out of Time.” The movie returns several times to a song with the refrain “remember the size of the world before,” and it’s easy to envision that song fitting right into Hamilton.
Vivo is Simo’s first and only credit on IMDb and she is the epitome of a discovery. She infuses Gabi with just the right mix of childhood enthusiasm and wonder. Although I have to confess I was a little stressed that much of Gabi and Vivo’s journey occurs without any parental supervision. Gabi’s mom Rosa (Zoe Saldaña) is devoted and loving even if she doesn’t always understand her daughter or know where she is. The rest of the cast is equally strong. Estefan is terrific and her closing song is a lovely ode to love. During his journey, Vivo meets two hilarious spoonbills (voiced by Brian Tyree Henry and Nicole Byer) and a nefarious python (Michael Rooker) who likes things to be very quiet. These cameos are also a lot of fun.
Vivo also serves as a vibrant love letter to Cuba, Florida and the people who inhabit them. The more diversity shown in movies aimed at children, the better. Even if this version of Florida is nothing like what we are seeing in the news these days, I’m all for this aspirational Florida.
I would like to pause here for a plea directly to all creators, producers and directors of children’s movies: There is no need for a parent to always be dead. This is a trend that Disney has perfected and now, Vivo, from Sony, is doing the same thing. Gabi’s father is dead before the movie even begins. This particular fact does nothing to advance the plot of the movie. It is completely unnecessary and honestly it’s traumatic for young viewers to never have a main character with two living parents. When it serves the plot or the characters, make the children orphans if you must—but it simply doesn’t have to be every time.
Part adventure, part wistful romance—alongside some nice lessons imparted about friendship, family and taking risks—Vivo is enjoyable and familiar. It probably isn’t a children’s movie we will still be talking about years from now, but I will at least be singing “My Own Drum” for days.
Director: Kirk DeMicco, Brandon Jeffords
Writers: Kirk DeMicco, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Peter Barsocchini
Starring: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ynairaly Simo, Zoe Saldaña, Juan de Marcos González, Brian Tyree Henry, Gloria Estefan, Nicole Byer, Michael Rooker, Leslie David Baker, Katie Lowes, Olivia Trujillo, Lidya Jewett
Release Date: August 6, 2021 (Netflix)
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).