Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 07/30/21

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ambitious animated family-friendly musical Vivo releases globally on Netflix next Friday (8/6).
My review follows the synopsis and trailer below.

Synopsis: Vivo, a one-of-kind kinkajou (aka a rainforest “honey bear,” voiced by Miranda), spends his days playing music to the crowds in a lively Havana square with his beloved owner Andrés (Buena Vista Social Club’s Juan de Marcos). Though they may not speak the same language, Vivo and Andrés are the perfect duo through their common love of music. When Andrés receives a letter from his old song-and-dance partner, the famous Marta Sandoval (three-time Grammy-winning Latin pop legend Gloria Estefan), inviting him to reconnect with her at her farewell concert in Miami with the hope of reconnecting, it’s up to Vivo to deliver a message that Andrés never could: A love letter to Marta, written long ago, in the form of a song. Yet in order to get to Marta, Vivo will need the help of Gabi (newcomer Ynairaly Simo), an energetic purple-haired tween who bounces to the beat of her own offbeat drum, to fulfill his heartfelt mission.
Also featuring the voices of Zoe Saldaña (Guardians of the Galaxy) as Gabi’s mother, Rosa; Michael Rooker as a villainous Everglades python, Lutador; Brian Tyree Henry and Nicole Byer as a pair of star-crossed spoonbills; and Katie Lowes, Olivia Trujillo, and Lidya Jewett as a trio of well-meaning but overzealous scout troop members.

From Netflix and Sony Pictures Animation, Vivo is directed by Kirk DeMicco (The Croods), co-directed by Brandon Jeffords (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2), written by Quiara Alegria Hudes (In the Heights) and produced by Lisa Stewart (Monsters vs. Aliens), Michelle Wong (Hotel Transylvania 2) and Rich Moore (Zootopia), with visual consultation by cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049). Serving as the film’s composer and executive music producer is Alex Lacamoire (The Greatest Showman). The film is executive produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Laurence Mark (Dreamgirls), and Louis Koo Tin Lok (The Mitchells vs. The Machines).
IMHO: Netflix made a big splash in the family animation market last May with the commercial and creative success The Mitchells vs. The Machines which yours truly called “the creative, witty (and) thoroughly entertaining.” And it was. Vivo, by contrast, is colorful, has some truly nice music and may be somewhat diverting for kids (though the snake villain with the glowing eyes could be nightmare fodder). Beyond that, however, it comes off as fairly safe and pedestrian Pixar wannabe.
It’s a shame because the makings of another winner are there. Certainly the talents involved have great storytelling in them. Unfortunately, Vivo delivers quite a bit less than the sum of its parts. For one thing, the heart of the story (Andrés’ longing to reconnect with Marta after sixty years) just fails to deliver the emotional punch it’s obviously striving for. Perhaps it would have helped if the film spent more time upfront showing us their youthful relationship. The gauzy flashbacks of the pair performing together just aren’t enough to pull us into their story and get us to really feel for them.
More fundamentally though, there’s a certain dishonesty in the story itself. I understand that Netflix wants Vivo to be seen as politics-free family entertainment but, if that’s the goal, have the backstory take place in Puerto Rico or somewhere where people can come and go with relative freedom. I’m willing to suspend disbelief when it comes to talking kinkajous and pythons but just don’t try to get me to believe that Cuba is anything other than an island prison.

Ironically, if the creators had embraced the reality of what Cuba is, they would have ended up with a much more emotionally-resonant story – especially given current headlines of Cubans standing up for their freedom against a brutal and dictatorial regime. For instance, instead of suggesting that Marta opted to leave Cuba sixty years ago because she received an offer to perform at the Mambo Cabana in Miami, they could have shown Andrés helping her leave as the country was about to fall to the Castro’s communist regime. There even could have been a poignant song about how the rise of the dictatorship led to their decades-long separation.

Moreover, back in the present when Marta invites Andrés to attend her farewell concert in Miami, the invitation itself is absurd given the harsh reality of Cuba but his response of off-the-charts denial.  He says “I cannot go to Miami. I’m an old man.” I’m sorry. Miami is ninety miles away. Not a long trek. The real reason he can’t go is, again, because Cuba is an island prison. And, of course, even if Vivo managed to make his way to the U.S. from Havana he would have been denied entry by Homeland Security.
Vivo could have been an entertaining, emotionally-resonant and bold statement about the value of freedom – and how young people like Gabi (and, too often, the rest of us) take it for granted. At a time when showing contempt for America is seen as a mark of cool sophistication, it would have been a breath of fresh air to have some pop culture offer some pushback on behalf of the underrated virtue of gratitude. As a country made of human beings, neither our history nor our present is perfect but we have freedom and that’s no small thing. And you know what? There’s a market for celebrating that. As it is, Vivo is harmless but forgettable fluff.
Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11
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