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Blame the kinkajou: Political scapegoating in Vivo

Blame the kinkajou: Political scapegoating in Vivo
VIVO - (L-R) GABI (voiced by Ynairaly Simo) and VIVO (voiced by Lin-Manuel Miranda). ©2021 SPAI. All Rights Reserved.

In Vivo, Sony Animation has gone for something more heartfelt and subtle than usual … and, unfortunately, the effect is the opposite of heartfelt and subtle.

Sony Animation is known for exaggerating national stereotypes until they blow up. Take Gru, the tragic supervillain of Despicable Me: that was Russian stereotype writ so large it exploded into non-stop laughs.

The film and audience were drawn into an agreement that, of course, labeling people sucks. However, in Vivo, the animation house has gone for something more heartfelt and subtle … and, unfortunately, the effect is the opposite of heartfelt and subtle.

The story revolves around a pet kinkajou, also known as a rainforest honey bear, a blindingly cute rainforest critter. This one has wound up adopted by Andres, an aging busker. The pair work the plazas of Havana to general adulation. For Vivo (Lin-Manuel Miranda), his entire world is Havana. Andres dies on the eve of a longed-for reunion with his lost love Marta Sandoval (Gloria Estefan), whose budding singing career took her to Miami 60 years ago.

It is at that moment that the reluctant kinkajou comes round to the idea of leaving his beloved hometown to go to the big city. But that is also where an otherwise delightful movie is cast under the long shadow of national objectification.

There is the distinct sense that Vivo’s smalltown attitude is meant to represent the provincialism of a generation of Cubans who grew up under communism. This is in contrast to the octogenarian Andres and, especially, Marta, who came of age in the pre-revolutionary 1950s and are being portrayed as worldy, or at least open to global exchange.

It is certainly a fudging of the almost comical power imbalance between the US and Cuba to represent the revolutionary generation and their children as the provincial ones. Surely the parochial culture in this relationship is that of the US, whose political, economic and cultural embargo on Cuba locked the otherwise highly globalised Caribbean island into isolation?

If you try to convince yourself to relax, to stop overthinking, and enjoy the sumptuous animation and frankly outstanding song and dance routines, you will be soon pulled back to reality with the entry of Gabi (Ynairaly Simo) and her well-meaning but perpetually frustrated mom, Rosa (Zoe Saldaña). 

Gabi is Andres’s great-niece and was born in Miami. Her mom is a representative of refugees from communist Cuba who have “made it” in the US. Go-getter immigrant Rosa stands in marked contrast to the folks “back home” in Havana. Gabi’s mother is hell-bent on integration, the kind of estate agent whose billboards loom over Miami’s highways. Hers is a clinical stance to cultural assimilation, a blind acceptance of the norms.

Still from “Vivo”. Image: Sony / Supplied

The film, to its credit, depicts how frustrating this is for little Gabi, whose resistance to the political correctness and oppressive homogeneity of American suburban culture comes not from her communist Cubanness, but rather from her innate artistry. She is a budding rapper, edgy, ironic, and perhaps reminiscent of Argentinian underground star, singer and performer Nathy Peluso

Gabi adopts the twice-orphaned kinkajou Vivo, who then ends up in Miami. Even in his relationship with Gabi, the little Cuban of the “lost generation” is reluctant to experience anything but his beloved Havana, with its dreamy old plazas and kindly urban village lifestyle. The kinkajou is a proper stick-in-the-mud and longs only to return to that version of Cuba, but it is Gabi’s dynamism and charisma that subtly reconfigures his experiences until he has become a kinkajou “of the world”. 

Cubans of the communist-era generations are represented here as having chosen isolation while it was, in fact, imposed on them by the US. Now that Cold War imperatives have (long) fallen away, and the US is finally prepared to ease Cuba’s isolation, the responsibility for what happened seems to subtly be placed is surely on the lap of the victims.

Still from “Vivo”. Image: Netflix / Supplied

Even when Vivo seems to assimilate to his new life, the film hurries to constrain what this means. In the attempt to reconstruct the song that great uncle Andres wrote for his lost love Marta, it has to be Vivo who brings the melody while it is Gabi who brings the lyrics, the words. The binary between the visceral, mute melody of the Caribbean and the ironic, confident voice of the US seems to drag the benevolent intentions of the movie right down. In intertwining the strands of contemporary Cuba, those who immigrated to the US in response to the communist regime and those who remained, each is forced into a mould that keeps all pinned down like butterflies in a glassed box.

The same process of objectification is even true of the suburban American girls, the Sand Dollars, a Girl Guide club who operate more like a schoolyard gang and clearly represent the other long assimilated or core strands of Americanness — white, black and brown, each to their razor-scooter. The Sand Dollars are sort of name-and-shame eco-warriors who try to bully Gabi into assimilation.

The film does offer an interpretation that it will not shirk from teasing out the ironies and even horrors of suburban American homogeneity and political correctness. Yet you cannot help but feel that this is disingenuous, played only for laughs (and some hearty ones), signaled as not to be taken seriously, while the objectification of Vivo and Gabi, precisely because it is so subtle and seemingly well-meaning, is the more dire species. DM/ML

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