With songs by Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars as the film’s titular kinkajou, Sony Pictures Animation’s latest gem blends 3D and 2D animation into a vibrant, colorful, and often wild celebration of music as a universal language of friendship, family, and love, premiering today on Netflix.
It’s a world of Havana harmonies, Cuban culture, Everglade exploits, unlikely Floridian friendships and, most importantly, music that expresses the love of a lifetime. Columbia Pictures’ and Sony Pictures Animation’s dazzling musical Vivo packs a lot into its colorful 95-minutes, blending 3D and 2D animation together with Cuban and Key West tunes, characters of all ages, backgrounds, and species in a vibrant mix of song and dance.
The film premieres today, August 6, on Netflix. Directed by Kirk DeMicco, the Oscar-nominated writer and director of The Croods and co-directed by Brandon Jeffords (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2), Vivo stars Tony Award-winning Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda as the titular character; he also wrote and performs a number of new songs. Produced by Lisa Stewart (Turbo, Monsters vs. Aliens), Michelle Wong (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Hotel Transylvania 2), and Oscar-winner Rich Moore (Zootopia, Ralph Breaks the Internet), the film is written by DeMicco and Quiara Alegría Hudes (In the Heights), with visual consultation by Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049). The film’s composer and executive music producer is Tony and Grammy award-winner Alex Lacamoire (The Greatest Showman); Miranda, Golden Globe winner Laurence Mark (Dreamgirls), and Louis Koo Tin Lok (The Mitchells vs. The Machines) serve as executive producers.
In addition to Miranda, Vivo also stars Ynairaly Simo as Gabi; Zoe Saldana as Rosa; Juan de Marcos González as Andrés; Brian Tyree Henry as Dancarino; Gloria Estefan as Marta; Nicole Byer as Valentina; and Michael Rooker as Lutador; in addition to Leslie David Baker; Katie Lowes; Olivia Trujillo; and Lidya Jewett.
And be warned, there’s one potential spoiler below.
For DeMicco, Vivo was quite the undertaking. But the opportunity to direct his first animated musical was too good to pass up. “The opening song, ‘One of a Kind,’ speaks to the core story of two performers who complete each other - that work together doing 20 shows a day, every day for 20 years,” he explains. “And then what if you lose one? What if we lose somebody that we’re that close to? That was what drew me to the movie automatically, that first song and that relationship was really the thing that I fell in love with.”
He adds, “Animation, there's a magic to it. And I think that music gives it that much more power.”
The film centers around a young kinkajou (aka, a rainforest “honey bear”) named Vivo who performs music with his beloved friend Andrés on the streets of Havana, Cuba. One day, Andrés receives a letter from an old friend and former duet partner, Marta, now a famous singer, who asks him to join her on stage for one last show in Miami. Andrés tells Vivo of his unspoken love for Marta and plans to leave for Miami the next day, much to Vivo’s dismay.
But, before he’s able to leave, Andrés passes away in his sleep, and Vivo takes it upon himself to find Marta in Miami and share a love song Andrés wrote for her many years ago. Vivo enlists the help of Andrés’ colorful, kind, and head-strong grand-niece Gabi; the two embark on a wild adventure, learning about each other and the power of music as a universal language of friendship, family, and love.
“It was super interesting to watch how Lin architecturally built the musical because, right from the get-go, we wanted to use songs as much as we could in this story,” says DeMicco. “Our recording sessions would turn into music sessions, and then our music sessions would turn into acting sessions. If you strip out the dialogue, you can still tell this story with the musical album.”
From mambo to hip-hop and rap, Vivo strives to represent different musical stylings of characters whose culture embraces the story’s heart and soul: Havana.
“The number one goal was to represent Havana,” DeMicco shares. “We were trying to make a film that was animated but, at the same time, respectful, showcasing the beauty of the people and the music that Juan de Marcos González, who plays our Andrés, has spoken about for a long time.”
González, a Cuban bandleader and musician, grew up in Havana and was one of the voices the filmmaking team looked to for help with the story’s authenticity. “It was really important to us to have an authentic look and correct amount of representation of what Cuba was, so research was really important,” says art director Wendell Dalit, known for his visual development on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. “I got really jealous when Carlos and the directors went and did their Cuba research trip. I do a little bit of salsa dancing for fun. And so, when I first heard about Vivo, the whole thing vibed with me.”
Dalit worked alongside other art directors like Moana’s Andrew Edward Harkness and The Boss Baby’s Joseph C. Moshier as well as production designer Carlos Zaragoza, to achieve the film’s number two goal, as stated by DeMicco: “What can we do artistically with the animation to marry these musical themes?”
Animated by Sony Pictures Imageworks (SPI), Vivo was produced primarily in 3D/CG, though some musical scenes feature beautifully stylized 2D animation, such as the Mambo Cabana sequence, where Andrés is singing to Vivo about his story with Marta. The sequence’s design, which appears more than once in the film, was inspired by Cuban artists and mid-century illustrations of vinyl record covers from America and Europe, like those from Jim Flora, a commercial illustrator from the 1940s-1970s known for his geometric art.
“That sense of vibrancy in his drawings, they're actually a beautiful metaphor for music because it’s all about very abstract concepts,” explains Zaragoza, known for production design on The Emoji Movie. “And there was so much beautiful artwork in Cuba in the 1950s that was romanticized and later re-thought in America and Europe. That was part of what we were echoing in that section of the movie.”
“We were trying to get this vintage travel postcard look,” he continues. “And Carlos brought to the party the idea of making the whole thing feel more theatrical. That's why we open with the curtains because I think that way you know you're in a musical. That extended to our character design with Joseph Moshier as well because we needed to create characters that could exist in both worlds.”
Then there’s Gabi’s solo musical number, “My Own Drum,” which takes on a much more punk aesthetic, rather than the elegant, clean vintage look of Mambo Cabana. “The musical identity [for the number] is Key West and a girl whose room is filled with all these stickers and toys and just craziness that she brings with her personality,” says DeMicco. “We wanted that shock encounter for Vivo who, while young, has never seen anything like this and has been living with Andrés most of his life. So, we had all these big motion graphics.”
“Putting all these ingredients together and doing something new, it was candy for me, but the danger is always that mixing different styles and aesthetics takes over and distracts from the story,” Zaragoza notes. “For us, the most important thing was that everything should push and support the story visually. It wasn’t just about looking cool and our love of 2D animation or motion graphics; it was about telling the story visually.”
Dalit adds, “It's easy to make a film look like a hodgepodge of ideas. But when you look at it holistically as a story and make sure there's a reason for every stylistic change, I think that helps to make it feel cohesive.”
DeMicco says the rule became, “If it was earned, and it was organic, we would go for it.” And despite the drastic change in musical tone that takes place throughout the film, it all coincides with the characters and where they’re at in their life journeys. In the end, each character’s musical gifts contribute to the final musical numbers at the end of the film, where Cuba’s musical culture and love brings everyone together.
“I love that kind of storytelling, where anything can happen when a character starts singing and animation really is the place to do that,” the director adds. “There's so much musical identity in Vivo and I hope everyone can find one song that makes them smile, brings them some joy, and lives on.”