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Heads up: I was able to watch this series before its recent release via a screener sent to me by Netflix. I got no other form of monetization other than the screener. Thank you, Netflix.
Sony Pictures Animation has had quite a year, hasn’t it? The Mitchells vs. The Machines, Wish Dragon, the upcoming release of Hotel Transylvania 4, and with a lineup of other amazing and promising projects coming down the pipeline, Sony Pictures Animation is experiencing a renaissance of artistic creativity that has matched the likes of Disney and Pixar at their peaks. It’s nice to see a studio like Sony find their route through the sea of animation and result in some of the best or more interesting animated films for the past few years. They are doing what every studio should do by diversifying the experiences that you can’t get from other studios. Don’t try to make a Disney-like experience. If I want a Disney experience, I’ll go to Disney. Luckily, Sony Pictures Animation is so distinct that you won’t have a problem seeing them craft something other studios have turned down for some reason. For example, let’s talk about their newest film, Vivo.
Directed by Kirk DeMicco and Brandon Jeffords, this new animated feature was born from a passion project by Peter Barsocchini and a failed pitch from Lin-Manuel Miranda with songs written by Miranda and his collaborator Alex Lacamoire. It was originally pitched at DreamWorks Animation after Miranda’s play In the Heights was a hit, but due to DreamWorks getting restructured in 2015, the pitch fell through. Later greenlit through Sony Pictures and set for release back in November 2020, Vivo was delayed due to the pandemic. Afterward, Sony made a deal where their animated films and live-action films will make it to the streaming service Netflix. So, where does this land on Sony’s recent streak of animated films? Well, you will have to read to find out.
The story revolves around a young Kunkajou named Vivo, voiced by LIn-Manuel Miranda. Vivo lives with his owner Andres, voiced by Juan de Marcos Gonzalez. They live in Cuba together and play music. Their life is perfect until Andres gets a letter from a previous love interest named Marta Sandoval, voiced by Gloria Estefan. Marta requests that he come to Miami for her last performance so they can see each other again after so many years have passed. Unfortunately, Andres passes away before he can make the trip. At the wake, Vivo meets Andres’ grand-niece named Gabi, voiced by Ynairaly Simo. Vivo decides to go to Florida with Gabi and her mother Rosa, voiced by Zoe Saldana. Vivo then attempts to communicate with Gabi to take Andres’ last song to Marta’s final performance in Miami, and it is up to Gabi and Vivo to get there in time!
Let’s talk about the animation first. Something that Sony Pictures has tied their name to in terms of their visual style and art direction is experimental and groundbreaking innovations and snappy movements. So, What does Vivo bring? Well, due to it being a musical, the animation is still snappy, but it matches more with the music, so the movements are slower-paced to sync with the tunes. It still has the distinct Sony Pictures Animation elements with the human designs, but it doesn’t go as far as Spider-Verse or The Mitchells. With that said, it didn’t need to go that route since it still has its distinct visual look that I can’t match to other animated films that are out there. As per usual though with a Sony animated film, it does have some very vibrant and unique animated sequences that give a unique 2D CGI look using bright neon colors that make certain moments pop. It’s such a cool-looking movie, and I’m glad many of Sony’s animated features tend to have their looks. I adore these 2D/CGI moments in the film that don’t feel like they are trying to copy what another one of their films did. In terms of the voice cast, I adore it all. Lin Manuel Miranda is still growing on me as a lead actor and just an actor in general, but he brings a charm to the character with a certain innocence, and his comedic timing is getting better. I also enjoyed his singing. I know he doesn’t have the best voice, but for how the song was written and set, he passes with flying colors. Ynairaly Simo is also good as Gabi and brings that energetic “I dance to the beat of my own drum” spirit that encapsulates the character. The rest of the cast does a fine job as their respective characters as well, including Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, Michael Rooker, Brian Tyree Henry, Gloria Estefan, Leslie David Baker, Nicole Byer, Katie Lowes, and Zoe Saldana, all making for a memorable cast that has their own identifiable moments. The music by LMM and his co-writer is really good! It’s nice to see a strong musical from someone other than Disney for once. I know other studios have tried, but they tend to try and feel like a Disney musical rather than be their own type of musical. I found myself humming a lot of the tunes as I worked on this review and when I was at my job.
Story-wise, it’s a film that’s all about how music connects us, family, love, and the legacy you leave in this world. While the story itself has familiar beats and rhythm to the overarching story, the execution still made the journey through the film worth it. Music is such a universal language, and Vivo showed that no matter who or what you are, music connects us. At first, I was curious about why Vivo couldn’t speak the same language as the humans, but I think that helps reinforce the whole “music is universal” message that the film is going for. The studio sort of goes the route of something like Courage the Cowardly Dog where around everyone, he talks like an animal, but when addressing the audience or interacting for the sake of the audience, he speaks English. It’s an incredibly sweet story overall, and it reminds me of a US studio doing their take on one of my favorite films, Chico & Rita. Not only does it take place partly in Cuba, but the same kind of music is played throughout both films. It has, again, a familiar story beat about family, but I think everyone has gone through this situation where they lost a loved one and didn’t get to say something to them. They didn’t get to leave what they wanted to say to them. It’s an overall touching story, and even some bits with the side characters are fun.
Something that I wish more US animated films would do is step out of their comfort zones when it comes to certain characters and stories. I say this because the film itself doesn’t offer that many surprises, and that’s a shame because I like the overall experience and story, but it’s full of story elements you have seen before. It makes for an experience that’s well-told, but something we have seen before. You know what’s going to happen, and while it’s all executed well, there are elements to the story that could have been improved. The side characters are a good example of this. To me, they fell flat. The main film should be about Vivo and Gabi, but you still want to see the rest of the cast stack up to them or be memorable in some way, shape, or form. Rosa is just a typical caring mom, the Sand Dollars are typical tyrannical girl scouts, and Lutador is a road stop villain. He isn’t there to be important to the story, but more of a challenge that they have to face when trying to get to their destination. Rooker plays him with a devilish charm, but he’s like Madam Mim from The Sword in the Stone. No real mention or build-up until you see him. I also wanted there to be more time between Vivo and Andres. It gets to the tragedy as soon as possible, and that was jarring. Even when the trailer accidentally spoiled what happened to Andres, I wasn’t too bothered by it since I felt like something was going to happen, but I wish we either had spent more time with Andres, or Andrew lived and got to see Marta in person before passing. I know you would have to retool the film if the story kept him alive, but I feel like we didn’t get much time with him. It’s a shame since I love Juan de Maros Gonzalez as Andres and would have liked to have seen him in more scenes interacting with the people in the city and for there to be more scenes of just him and Vivo.
I think the biggest downfall of this film coming out is the fact it came out after something as big and acclaimed as The Mitchells vs The Machines, and it’s not fair to Vivo to be held up to that high standard. Vivo stands on its own two feet in terms of its own experience. I think that’s something quite nice about the animated films from Sony this year. They all feel distinct and different from one another. Sure, I might have a ranking of which ones I Like more, but it doesn’t change the fact that I have still found so much joy in how many unique offerings this one studio has given us this year. If you have yet to watch Vivo, please do. Netflix has done a terrible job with marketing this film, and it would be a real shame for this to get buried because of Netflix’s asinine algorithm and being overshadowed by other films and shows released that day. I love that we got an original film from the amazing Kirk DeMicco, Lin Manuel Miranda, and the other members of this passionate team. Seriously, do not let this film get buried. Now then, I would take a small break from reviewing, but the work is never done! Next time, I will be writing a review about another CGI animated film that Netflix is burying on the site with Monster Hunter: Legend of the Guild. I’m a little worried about how this film will turn out, but it can’t be any worse than that awful live-action adaptation from 2020 right? See ya next time!
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Rating: Go See It!