Death is a rare creature in family films. When it does come along, it’s often reserved for third act climaxes, cathartic moments, or benign, readymade backstory in most animated Disney features.

Early in The Book of Life, a character dies. The script follows this death with a joke about how inappropriate it is for a character to die early in a children’s film. The death fails to shock, though, because this animated feature is wholly concerned with the Mexican Dia de Los Muertos (Day of The Dead), an exuberant and colorful celebration that has as much to do with life as with the afterlife. Consider it all a tonally inverse companion piece to anything Tim Burton has ever had a hand in creating for kids.

We do get a self-aware nod to convention; a plot framed as a legend told by a museum tour guide (the voice of Christina Applegate) to a bunch of rebellious school children, those minor characters are allowed to give voice to the flinching response some parents will find themselves experiencing, as one of the rowdy young boys complains, “What kind of story is this? We’re just kids!”

Kids can, of course, accept and understand just about anything when provided proper context, and The Book of Life dives happily into its subject matter. An independent-minded young woman, Maria (Zoe Saldana), wooed over the course of her lifetime by her two best male friends, the musical Manolo (Diego Luna) and the valiant warrior Joaquin (Channing Tatum), must join forces with her suitors when a trickster spirit named Xibalba (Ron Perlman) turns their romantic entanglement into a bet he wants to win. The wager is with Xibalba's beloved La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), the outcome dependent on which man Maria will choose to love; so Xibalba rigs the game with a magical, powerful medal that gives the unwitting Joaquin too much power. There’s a malevolent outside force that needs defeating, too, along with a wild cast of supporting characters who're constantly pulling focus, and a third supernatural figure known as The Candlemaker (Ice Cube), whose job is to preside over the living.

It sounds more complicated than it is. First time feature director Jorge R. Gutierrez (the delightful animated series El Tigre), under the producing hand of Guillermo del Toro, with a script by Gutierrez and Douglas Langdale, has achieved a difficult juggling feat, keeping a large cast of characters involved and interesting, and at a fairly frantic verbal and visual pace. Paul Sullivan’s and Simon Valdimir Varela’s production design is kaleidoscopically beautiful, operating on a maximalist scale. The music, including several songs borrowed from other sources, upends recent conversations about cultural appropriation by taking the Baz Luhrmann approach to re-imaging songs by Radiohead and Mumford & Sons, then placing them squarely in Mexico, “the center of the universe” according Applegate’s narration.

Best of all, Book of Life is witty, charming, playful, feminist, sad and moving, a huge, multicourse meal that wants to build on and break down stereotypes, enjoying their pleasures while chewing them up and then spitting them out. And when it pays only half-attention to the usual third-act demand for all-out war against the Bad Thing, that wise move puts it in the welcome company of this year’s How To Train Your Dragon 2, as both films look for alternatives to cartoonishly aestheticized violence.

But back to Death. It isn’t, and also is, a character, acting as the oxygen in this movie’s atmosphere, informing everything on screen, presented as normal, historical, familial and even mutable. That's weird. And welcome. Most animated features refuse to take the risk of stopping for it. Here it kindly, and happily, stops for you.


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