I once spent a week living out of a canoe in the middle of the Florida Everglades. For six hot, sticky days and nights, I paddled my way through thick mangrove tunnels teeming with tree crabs and banana spiders (which would occasionally find a home at the bottom of my sleeping bag). The veil I wore over my face during the day was covered in mosquitos and gnats. It was a memorable experience, to say the least, and it was all I could think about while watching the new Sony Pictures Animation movie Vivo on Netflix over the weekend.
The second big Lin-Manuel Miranda musical of the summer, Vivo follows a singing kinkajou named Vivo (voiced by Miranda himself), who ventures from his home in Havana to Miami on an important errand. His journey with newfound human friend Gabi takes them through Key West, Biscayne Bay, and an Everglades filled with colorful flowers, rainforestlike greenery, and, crucially, not a single bug. I began to wonder if the filmmakers had ever even seen the Everglades.
I spoke with James Fourqurean, a marine and estuarine ecologist and the associate director of Florida International University’s Institute of Environment, about the accuracy of Vivo’s bugless Everglades depiction. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Sofia Andrade: What was your initial reaction while watching the movie?
James Fourqurean: I gotta say, living here in Miami, it meant a lot more to me just because of all the cultural references to the Keys and the Cuban American community and Miami Beach and the Everglades. It was really cool to see my life given the cartoon treatment. I do have to say, though, that I’ve got to remember this is just a cartoon, so scientific accuracy is not the primary driving factor.
What were your thoughts on its scientific accuracy?
The cartoonists didn’t use the right color palette. The Everglades are more of a light-green and brown kind of place, not an intense rainforest [that’s] deep-green and dark. I thought what they managed to do well was capture the complexity of the mangrove fringe habitat. When you drive your boat up into the canopy you really do drive into this three-dimensional forest. That aspect of it was really cool.
It is not possible to drive a boat up the Shark River and arrive at Miami [like the characters do]. You can’t navigate that, and hopefully no one would use a cartoon as a navigation. And they call it the Everglades and it is—it’s Everglades National Park, and it’s part of that greater Everglades ecosystem—but they didn’t have really any representation of what most people think of when they think of the Everglades, and that’s the “River of Grass.”
So, if the movie were being more honest, how would Vivo and Gabi have gotten from Key West to the Everglades by boat?
They would have left Key West in a boat, then ran up the Gulf of Mexico side into Everglades National Park in Florida Bay. They would have been in shallow water and [the filmmakers] would have been able to give the cartoon treatment to my favorite ecosystem, the seagrasses, because there are 18,000 square kilometers of seagrasses along that route. And instead of getting into the really huge mangrove trees that they depicted by going up the Shark River, they would have been in an area that can’t support huge trees because there’s not enough phosphorus there. The mangrove trees would have been more the size of the girls [Gabi and the Sand Dollar scouts who help her and Vivo]. They would have popped through Jewfish Creek and into the bottom part of Biscayne Bay, and then they would have run north of Biscayne Bay up to Miami Beach. And Biscayne Bay is another large seagrass-dominated estuary, with mangroves along the fringe on the southern parts of it, punctuated by a nuclear power plant and a couple of trash dumps that tower above the rest of the landscape—but it’s still a pretty place. It probably would have taken five hours.
When I saw the first scenes of the Everglades in the movie, with these big sturdy trunks and all the flowers, it just didn’t look right to me.
Yep. I was looking at all of the jack-in-the-pulpit flowers, and they don’t occur in Florida. The flowers were not correct. The shapes of the tree bases were. I think the sizes were exaggerated, unless they were really, really, tiny girls. Of course, the girls were the same size as the kinkajou, right? They were really, really tiny. They were kind of mixing images. They had a mangrove forest, and within the mangrove forest they had these really big, kind of swelling-at-the-base trunks that looked a lot like cypress. Cypresses give you that feeling when you see them. And there are flowers that hang from them [in the Everglades]. There are native orchids. They weren’t anatomically correctly depicted in the cartoon, but when you look for them, there are flowers.
The mangroves in the movie were also unusually big, weren’t they?
Well, let me tell you: The 1935 hurricane was a huge event in South Florida, and we’re still seeing the ghosts of that. That storm is called the Labor Day storm, and before the Labor Day storm in the Flamingo area, there was a forest of giant black mangrove trees, and these trees were 5 feet in diameter and 80 feet tall. Those trees succumbed to that hurricane, and there hasn’t been a long-enough period to grow those big trees back, but in history there have been big, dense forests like that.
So maybe Vivo took place in an alternate universe where this storm never happened.
But I also found that the Everglades became more realistic-looking when the characters are stuck in that big storm and we start to see those mangroves with all their intertwining branches.
I think you’re right. [But] there are a couple of things. There were no mosquitoes, which made it seem not very much like the Everglades. And they were also walking around in the mangroves without sinking up to their knees. Those were things that didn’t ring true to someone that spent all their time out there. But, you know, the flip side is, this is a cartoon depiction in popular culture of a place I love, and it got some things right.
What are some of those things Vivo got right?
It got [right] the fact that a kinkajou would be an invasive exotic species if it showed up in the Florida Keys. And then the point that I really liked was that this invasive kinkajou’s main threat in the Everglades was an invasive python. Of course, the snake didn’t look anything like a python. It was the wrong color and the shape of the head was wrong and it was way, way, way too big. But it’s a cartoon. They needed to get the threatening aspect. The teeth were more or less correctly shaped on that snake, but they were way more prominent and big than they would be. I mean, it had the head of a viper but the teeth of a constrictor. They didn’t say that the pythons didn’t belong there—I would have liked to have had that worked in, but [I liked the message of] an exotic kinkajou being threatened by exotic python. You know, there’s been a 95 percent reduction in small mammals in Everglades National Park, according to one study, because of the invasion by pythons. They’re eating everything.
One of the other messages you would take home if you saw it is that the Everglades is not just the river of grass. It’s also this marine environment with dolphins, and it’s this foresty place too, more than the river of grass. They also did a good job, I think, of pointing out that roseate spoonbills are gorgeously colored, though they made them seem a little dumber than they really are.
What about that green lizard that warns Vivo about the python?
That looked like no lizard we have, either native or exotic. And we have so many exotic lizards here now. Just because we haven’t seen that one doesn’t mean it’s not out there, given how common it is for escaped pets to get loose and become common. Today’s geckos and even monitor lizards could be tomorrow’s iguanas and brown anoles. The lizards I see around me now in Miami would have all seemed fanciful if someone had made a cartoon [about them] in the ’80s, when I first started working here.
David Ehrlich said that Vivo is done “with the enthusiasm of someone who’s never actually been to Florida.” What do you think?
I think the only place that’s true was inside the mangrove forest. So many of the cultural things just really, really rang true.
I would hate for me to come across as that grumpy old guy who doesn’t understand entertainment. They stylize things and it was a movie for fun. It was more a movie about “Don’t forget to say I love you when you have the chance” than it was about the ecology. But in the background, they did some things great and they did some things that made me think they weren’t really in Florida. On the whole, I was really happy to see South Florida and the South Florida ecosystems presented. It was great to see parts of the Everglades, other than just an endless river of grass presented. And I enjoyed it.