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Vivo (2021)

The animated musical is a form that has become so synonymous with Disney that in modern Hollywood other animation studios usually stay away. During the House of Mouse's Renaissance era several rival studios tried to replicate the Disney formula to limited success. With the resurgent studio now more successful than ever, animated musicals from other producers are rare. Enter Sony Pictures Animation who have had something of a creative rebirth of their own, with their first musical feature, Vivo.

Vivo is the latest Sony movie to scrap a planned theatrical release in favour of a sale to Netflix- following in the footsteps of The Mitchells Vs The Machines and Wish Dragon. The film is written and directed by Kirk DeMico, director of The Croods and Space Chimps. DeMico penned the screenplay alongside  Quiara Alegria Hudes (In The Heights) from a story by Hudes and Peter Barsocchini. Brandon Jeffords, an established storyboard and story artist makes his debut as co-director.

Sony's movie is the first of two animated features in 2021 to feature original songs composed by musical genius Lin-Manuel Miranda- the other being Disney's Encanto. Here, Miranda also voices the titular character. At first glance, Vivo appears to be some kind of monkey, but he is fact a golden kinkajou or honey bear, an unusual tree-dwelling mammal in the raccoon family, found in the canopies of the tropical forests of Central and South America. When we meet Vivo, he lives a contented existence in Havana, Cuba, with his kindly owner and friend Andres, entertaining locals with their music in the town square. But when tragedy strikes, Vivo hitches a lift to Florida with Andres's great-niece and sets off on an epic adventure to deliver a song to his owner's long-lost friend and the love of his life.

Havana is brought to life with fantastic vibrancy and energy in a captivating opening. The setting distinguishes it immediately from other animated features (Chico and Rita is the only other animated movie partially set there that I can recall). With Miranda's musical mastery joining with the talent of Buena Vista Social Club star Juan de Marcos Gonzalez (the voice Of Andres) kicks off with style, drawing you in straight away. The relationship between Vivo and Andres is quickly established as the film's heart, an unbreakable bond that transcends the fact they don't speak the same language.

The kinkajou's settled life is disrupted by the arrival of a letter from Andres's dear friend from his younger days. Now a world-famous diva Marta Sandoval (given voice by legendary singer Gloria Estefan) was once Andres's partner. Marta is to retire, and she invites Andres to come to Miami to reunite and perform together one last time. 

Vivo's main companion for the journey is Andre's American relative, Gabi.  With purple-dyed hair and a very singular dress sense, Gabi is the very picture of a quirky tween. Despite the best efforts of Rosa, her well-meaning mum, she just doe not seem interested in fitting in with other kids. We see these sorts of characters in plenty of animated and live-action family films and series, but so often, it's seen as a defence mechanism. They convince themselves they don't want friends, in reaction to ostracising and bullying from other children. It's refreshing that Gabi (voiced by newcomer Ynairaly Simo) genuinely seems to just prefer 'marching to the beat of her own drum', as her big musical number says. There are certainly some enjoyable parallels here with Mitchells Vs The Machines' Katie.

With Gabi and Vivo setting off to Miami, the film's second act takes on the form of a road-movie adventure romp. As they make their way across Florida, they are in a race against time, all while being pursued by Rosa, as well as three members of the girl-scout-style organisation that Gabi was made to join against her will.

Stranded in the Everglades and separated from Gabi, Vivo encounters a love-lorn Spoonbill (Brian Tyree Henry) and a hungry snake voiced with gravelly menace by Guardians Of The Galaxy and The Walking Dead star Michael Rooker.

This stretch of the film bounces along nicely, entertaining us with thrills, laughs and some top tunes. A cheerful and fun tone carries throughout the film, making for a fun and breezy watch. While this may be what draws you in initially, beneath its cute and fuzzy exterior beats a real, soulful heart. The film's portrayal of relationships- family, friends and romantic alike- carries a real believability and sweetness to them. There are several times that the film tips into melancholy that are sure to give viewers who are prone to it a workout for the old tearducts. These emotional moments are often conveyed best through Miranda's soulful songs (none more so than One More Song).

Visually, the film is much more conventional than some of Sony's other recent films. It's no less impressive for that, creating beautiful vistas from lively Cuba to the bright lights of  the big city in Miami. The character designs are very distinct, with some unusual shapes and a look that is something of an acquired taste. They're also extremely varied, and refreshingly carry some body-types we don't often see on screen (cartoony as they may be here). Vivo himself though is a total cutie, with his natty Panama hat and necktie combo.  Gabi's design tells us a lot about her personality- complete with that hair, oversized glasses and the chequered black and white tie, she's another design high-point.

The most interesting aspect of the animation in Vivo though is how often it changes. On numerous occasions the film changes style, most notably to a beautiful 2D-effect, used for flashbacks and dream sequences. The animation changes also often accompany a song, making them as if they were each little music videos incorporated into the film. It makes for a visual and audio treat of a film overall.

Miranda's music is of course excellent. For the most part it's inspired by Cuban music, often accompanied by an acoustic guitar. Elsewhere, Miranda's Hamilton-style Hip-Hop creeps in, most notably in I March To The Beat Of My Own Drum, probably the film's biggest candidate for breakout success (and most likely to get stuck in your head). He also does a great job in voicing Vivo, bringing a real likability and warmness to the role. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, without a weak leak in the bunch, Especially worth a mention are Simo and Gonzalez, both impressing in their screen acting debuts.

It's not hard to imagine that Vivo will end up being overshadowed by Encanto, with the Walt Disney Animation Studios movie sure to be much higher profile. Thanks to the might of the Disney marketing budget, its likely to be unavoidable come November. Maybe going straight to Netflix will actually be an advantage in this case, with more people likely to stumble across it in the weeks, months and year to come- and finding a hidden gem. It would definitely be a shame if people missed out on this thoroughly charming film.



IN A NUTSHELL:  Sony's first animated musical never strikes a bum note and is sweet and soulful as its soundtrack. Viva Vivo!