Don’t call Vivo a monkey.
He’s a kinkajou, by golly, and proud of it. Oh, he might forgive you if you mistook him for a prehensile-tailed primate. After all, he looks like a monkey. He sounds like a monkey. He might, for all we know, smell like a monkey. (Netflix hasn’t quite mastered the technology of scent-o-vision, so we can’t say for sure.) And even though scientists say that kinkajous are more closely related to raccoons than primates, most raccoons in my neighborhood would look seriously out of place swinging through the trees.
But how many monkeys do you know that can play the bongo, toot a flute, and break into rap now and then? Not many, I’d wager. Granted, Vivo’s musical abilities are probably rare even among kinkajous. (Though they’re notoriously secretive, so who knows?) But Vivo is a very special kinkajou.
Though kinkajous don’t, as a rule, frequent Cuba, Vivo found his way there as a tot—perhaps accidentally boxed up in a shipping crate. He quickly made the acquaintance of most of the island’s feral dogs, and it was all he could do to stay alive. But then he met Andrés, a kindly old musician who shooed away the dogs, coaxed Vivo down from the trees and taught him all about music. Soon, he and Andrés were literally making beautiful music together, playing for visitors in the old town plaza and collecting dollars and pesos by the hatful.
Yes, it was a good life for both of them. Vivo loved Andrés and lived for the music. And Andrés … well, he hadn’t had a partner in anything for a long, long time. Not since Marta, his first musical muse, left Cuba to become a huge star in the States. He remembered saying goodbye like it was yesterday—waving farewell from the airport tarmac, unable to tell her that he loved her.
Was he afraid? Perhaps. But at the time, Andrés considered it a kindness. Her talent needed a bigger stage than backwater Cuba, and he worried she’d stay if he told Marta how he felt. Yes, he loved her. But Andrés knew the whole world would love her, too—if they had just the chance to hear her.
So he waved goodbye and poured out all his love into one song, “Para Marta,” that he packed away and never played. He assumed he’d never hear from her again. And for 60 years, that proved to be true.
Until the letter.
It came one unremarkable afternoon. Marta had indeed become a star, loved by millions. Now it was time to close the books on a glorious career with one last concert—in Miami, where she’d had her start. Would Andrés come? Would he accompany her, just like he had decades before? Would they play together just one last time?
Vivo’s dead set against it. “We’re not Miami guys!” he protests, even though all Andrés can hear are squeaks. “We’re small-town guys! We’re plaza guys!”
But Andrés wants to see Marta again—to tell her, after all this time, how much she meant to him. He wants to play her “Para Marta” for the first, perhaps last time. He was going to go, and that’s that. Vivo would have to live with it.
But if Vivo could live with it, Andrés, alas, did not. That very evening, the musician died in his sleep, holding the song in his hands. He’d never make it to Miami. Never play for Marta. Never tell her how much he loved her.
Now, your typical monkey might not care about this tragic end to a love story. One might just shrug his little hairy shoulders and go off in search of his next banana.
But Vivo is a kinkajou—and one with a musician’s heart at that. People may die, but their song lives on. And Vivo is determined to keep Andrés’ song alive—at least until Marta can hear it.
Sure, it won’t be easy for even a very talented and resourceful little kinkajou to make his way to the United States. It’ll take loads of courage, planning and probably a lot of luck, too.
But Vivo will do it. No monkeying around this time.
Vivo wasn’t the only one to love Andrés. Everyone who knew him felt the same way, it seems. Andrés left a legacy we could all be envious of: He was, truly, a good man.
And while I guess we could debate whether Andrés should’ve told Marta how he felt, we can say that he felt it was an act of sacrifice—a decision he made not just for Marta’s long-term happiness and success, but for the countless people who would be blessed by her talent. Marta had a gift, Andrés would say. And that gift needed to be shared.
Naturally, Vivo’s bravery and his own sacrifices form most of this story’s backbone. Swallowing his own fears, the little kinkajou risks his life constantly in order to fulfill Andrés’ last real wish.
He needs plenty of help to do it, of course—and some of that help comes from some unexpected quarters. But his biggest helpmate turns out to be an odd little girl named Gina. She proudly declares that she bounces to “the beat of my own drum,” and she may serve as an inspiration to many kids who don’t feel like they fit in.
After Andrés dies, a memorial service is held in the plaza where he and Vivo performed, where mourners hold candles and pay homage. Someone says that Andrés and Marta’s reunion wasn’t “meant to be,” unfortunately, offering a bit of a nod toward predeterminism. But we also hear some references that Andrés might not be wholly gone—that he might well be with his loved ones in spirit.
During a song that Gabi sings, the ghosts of some of her dead, unfortunate pets rise up to accompany her. Once in Florida, Vivo begs the cosmos for “some kind of sign” to find Marta. He nearly misses a passing bus with a billboard on its side, advertising Marta’s farewell concert in Miami. Someone asks if a rescuer is an “angel.” We hear a reference to zombies, too.
Some animated outfits reveal a bit of cleavage and midriff.
Andrés and Marta’s relationship seems to have originally been a friendship and musical partnership, with any romantic feelings left unvoiced.
A pair of infatuated spoonbill birds squawk sweet nothings into each other’s ears and sometimes neck (quite literally; they wrap their necks around each other).
Vivo includes a smattering of slapstick violence that could be frightening to younger viewers, but which is mostly played for laughs.
When Vivo arrives in Florida, he and Gina decide to take a “short cut” to Miami through the Everglades. Someone notes that “his natural predator is every animal in here.” And indeed, both Vivo and several humans are threatened by all manner of beasties. The biggest culprit: A fearsome python named Lutador who’d very much like to eat most every character here (if only to keep them quiet). Lutador suffers the indignity of being tied in a knot, though, too.
Vivo is threatened and chased by dogs (one of whom calls him “adorable, and probably tasty, too”). A stormy river poses yet more danger to Vivo and Gina, and the kinkajou suffers a number of minor injuries during his adventure (including getting thwacked with a hockey stick and having his tail pinched in a zipper).
People are flung around and fall. When Vivo finds himself in Gina’s room, he spies a series of little gravestones—commemorating pets that Gina (it’s suggested) didn’t take very good care of. “That’s my petting zoo,” she says. “Well, it was.” (We also learn that her own father died some time ago.)
Vivo meets a lovelorn spoonbill who’s digging his own grave. Some girl scouts (called the Sand Dollars) are deeply committed to environmentalism, and they paint despairing pictures of what might happen to the environment if folks don’t follow their advice. “You won’t have the blood of Mother Nature on your hands,” one says. A spoonbill almost swallows a frog. (“Sorry, Gary,” the spoonbill says.)
The worst we get here may be one use of the word “dang.”
Gina feels that rules are more suggestions, if that. While in Cuba (attending a memorial service for Andrés), she encourages Vivo to sneak off to Florida with her. Once they’re both in the state, she runs off with Vivo to fulfill his mission—much to the understandable worry of her mother. She lies and misleads, and the film sometimes gives her a pass on her bad behavior—even if all of her misadventures lead Gina to a much healthier place in the end.
If Gina cares little about rules, the scouts may care a little too much (at least as far as the movie’s story arc is concerned). When they spot the kinkajou, the head scout is determined to capture the beast for its own good, because it really should be quarantined for several weeks at a minimum. They’re very proficient at shaming grown men for not being environmentally concerned enough. (“I’m not a bad man,” one whimpers. “I just want a cookie.”)
The film is marred by a bit of bathroom humor: When Gina tries to encourage Vivo to sneak off with her, she tells him not to worry about not having access to a bathroom: “I’ve got wipes,” she says confidently. (Vivo later says that she was quite mistaken.) We hear a sound mimicking flatulence.
You wouldn’t think that one of our nation’s founding fathers would have much in common with a Cuban kinkajou. But in this case, they do: Lin-Manuel Miranda.
In 2010, a couple of years after Miranda’s In the Heights wowed Broadway audiences but a few years before Hamilton became a bona fide phenomenon, the actor/singer/composer/playwright approached DreamWorks Animation with the story of a little kinkajou on a big adventure. One studio reorganization and one global pandemic later, the project landed with Sony and Netflix. Miranda not only voices Vivo, but he wrote or co-wrote (with frequent collaborator Alex Lacamoire) the songs for the movie.
The result is one of the year’s sweetest animated films.
Sure, Vivo isn’t the weep-worthy storytelling triumph of Pixar at its best. This is a lighter tale, but it’s still remarkably effective and deeply sincere. With Andrés and Marta’s bittersweet love story at its heart, Vivo gives us a poignant adventure that speaks of friendship and sacrifice, of overcoming your fears and helping others. It’s a journey of healing: Vivo and Marta and especially Gina need a little salve. Music and friendship are just the sorts of treatment they all need.
And it’s all tied up in a pretty praiseworthy package, with few minor content caveats to note. We don’t see much untoward (unless you count a few threatening situations and a bit of slapstick violence), nor do we hear nary a foul word. Why, this is the sort of movie that Andrés himself might’ve watched when he was a child: cleaner, maybe (given how many old cartoons depicted drunken lushes and unfortunate racial stereotypes).
Not every note in Vivo hits its mark, of course. But for the most part, this lovable kinkajou and his fiery human helper make some really beautiful music—one that many a viewer will enjoy tapping a toe to.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.