THE BOOK OF LIFE (7 out of 10) Directed and Written by Jorge R. Gutierrez; Starring Christina Applegate, Ice Cube, Placido Domingo, Kate del Castillo, Hector Elizondo, Diego Luna, Cheech Marin, Ron Perlman, Zoë Saldana, Channing Tatum, Danny Trejo; Rated PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images. In wide release October 17. 95 minutes.

Executive produced by Guillermo del Toro, "The Book of Life's" stunning animation and fun make up for a fairly by-the-numbers plot, but in a year where we've had several great animated features it still manages to stand out as an instant classic for the Halloween (or any) season. Centered around the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead, the story centers around the small Mexican village of San Angelo, which just happens to sit atop the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten, ruled over by La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), respectively.

The two gods make a bet over which boy will win the hand of Maria (Zoe Saldana): the brave, fierce Joaquin (Channing Tatum) or the romantic Manolo (Diego Luna). The catch is, Maria doesn't want to be "won"-- she is not a "prize" for either of them (yay female empowerment!). Also, the two boys face living up to their families' legacies: Manolo comes from a long line of bullfighters and is an incredibly skillful one himself, but he refuses to kill the bull. He'd rather be a singer. Meanwhile, Joaquin is constantly in the shadow of his father, a brave general who died saving the city from the bandit Chakal, who is once again threatening San Angelo.

While the relationship between Maria, Manolo, and Joaquin is the main plot piece, the far more interesting dynamic is between La Muerte and Xibalba, as the voice actors really have a lot of fun with these roles as they play like an old married couple more than a couple of demigods. Xibalba cheats on the bet, giving favors to Joaquin and eventually sending Manolo on a quest through the underworld, which is when the movie really kicks into high gear.

The animation is beautiful. The digital renderings are made to look like wooden puppets or dolls, allowing for incredibly disproportionate bodies (Maria's body is literally stick-thin, Joaquin's shoulders are wider than a Cadillac, etc) but a stylization that helps make this film even more enchanting. In the Land of the Remembered, the colors are so vibrant and. . .well, alive, that you wish the film could linger there for longer.

Unfortunately, the journey through the land of the dead is cut short by the film's most serious mistake, which is the inclusion of Ice Cube as The Candle Maker. Ice Cube is great in the right material, but this is just a mismatch that seem more like the hamfisted stunt casting of a lot of Dreamworks animated projects. (Remember Snoop Dogg in "Turbo"?)

One issue that may divide audiences is the soundtrack, which takes modern songs from Mumford and Sons, Rod Stewart, Biz Markie, Elvis, Radiohead, and others and turns them into mariachi-inspired versions. While generally fun and appropriate, there were a couple of times it felt forced and jarring, taking you out of the film experience.

But overall the animation, voice acting and fun factor built into "The Book of Life" make up for a by the numbers plot and irrational involvement by Ice Cube. Kids and parents will both enjoy this, and you may just learn a thing or two about Mexican culture while you're at it. This film joins others like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, and Paranorman as great animated films to enjoy during the Halloween season.

7 out of 10

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Tags: Guillermo del Toro