Cuban culture and music are front and center in the latest animated film out on Netflix. Vivo is the first-ever Sony Animation musical film and the second of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s movie projects this year following In the Heights, with Disney’s Encanto and Tick, Tick…Boom! scheduled for release in late 2021. The titular character is a kinkajou (aka a honey bear), a rainforest mammal that’s native to Central and South America and voiced by Miranda. The film follow his journey as he attempts to deliver a song to his owner Andrés’s long-lost love in Miami from Cuba, with only the help of Andrés’s grand-niece Gabi (voiced by newcomer Ynairaly Simo) and the new animal friends he meets along the way.
The film, written by In the Heights screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes, stars well-known actors and singers including Gloria Estafan (Marta Sandoval), Zoe Saldaña (Rosa), Juan de Marcos González (Andrés Hernandez), as well as Brian Tyree Henry (Dancarino), Nicole Byer (Valentina), and Leslie David Baker (Bus Driver) in supporting roles.
While I was curious about Vivo, I was admittedly hesitant about Miranda’s role in the film given his controversy in June surrounding the lack of Afro-Latinx actors in his recent projects. But here, I was pleasantly surprised by the care taken with the diversity in its cast of characters in skin tone, race, and ethnicity, which I’d argue is even more important in a children’s movie like this one. Afro-Latinxs are at the center of this story, and it’s refreshing how much the Latinx experience as a whole is normalized.
For once, it’s not about the dark side of the diaspora, xenophobia, or poverty because while those experiences are important, they definitely over-saturate our representation. Sure, the film couldn’t be told without its Cuban influences from the country’s people, music, or culture, but it’s not a “struggle story”—it’s a celebration!
Spanish is spoken in the music and between characters casually, accents are treated as natural rather than comedic jabs. We even see a few inside jokes for the Latinx community throughout — including two drivers who almost crash into each other on the road, hurl insults in Spanish, then part as friends.
The animation, both computer and hand-drawn, was also incredible to watch. Along with the songs, the whole movie was visually and musically stunning, full of bright colors, quick-pacing, and pure joy that was as genuine as it was infectious.
Miranda delivered a great performance with his familiar rap and hip hop influences, and González as Andrés, even though he was only on screen for the beginning and end, was probably my favorite character for his softness, tenderness, and care with every line he spoke or sang. And after listening to Gloria Estafan’s music for years, hearing her sing so beautifully in the film felt like coming home.
Especially given the recent political turmoil in Cuba, Vivo is a timely and much-needed celebration of such a culturally rich and influential country, and one I’ll definitely be recommending to all my family and friends. It’s more than just a children’s movie now—it’s another piece of our community.
Vivo is now available to stream on Netflix.