Maria, voiced by Zoe Saldana in a scene from "The...

Maria, voiced by Zoe Saldana in a scene from "The Book of Life." Credit: AP

Death be not proud. It also isn't something most of us discuss with the very young children that are the audience for this animated film. But if anyone can start the conversation, it's the whimsically macabre Guillermo del Toro, who as producer spearheaded director and co-writer Jorge Gutierrez's visually dazzling, frosted cake of a film about the core belief behind Mexico's Day of the Dead -- that our loved ones remain alive, in a way, as long as we remember them.

Granted, death isn't an end to things in this movie's conception. The afterlife is either a gloomy but hardly hellish place called the Land of the Forgotten, ruled by smooth operator Xibalba (a silken-voiced Ron Perlman), or the colorful phantasmagoria called the Land of the Remembered, presided over by the beautiful La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), Xibalba's angry ex-lover.

Wanting to change places, Xibalba talks her into a bet over which of two boys -- Manolo (Diego Luna) or Joaquin (Channing Tatum) -- will win the love of the feisty and feminist Maria (Zoe Saldana). But Xibalba can't resist stacking the deck by giving Joaquin the Medal of Everlasting Life, which prevents Joaquin from being injured or killed. He grows up to become a heroic soldier who believes his own press a tad too much, while his best friend, Manolo, a musician at heart, is forced by his father (Hector Elizondo) to become the latest in his family's line of bullfighters.

He's a natural at it, except Manolo will not kill the bull. He's readily willing to give up his own life, however, to spare Maria's -- and once in the Land of the Remembered, he discovers Xibalba has tricked him and now he must find a way back.

With character designs evoking traditional Day of the Dead puppets, "The Book of Life," nonetheless, is its own vision. Funny without being frantic, seamlessly switching from dry humor to slapstick, it shows death as a part of life -- and, judging from a preview audience of very young tykes, does so in a gentle, delightful way.

PLOT Two men vie for a woman in a Mexican Day of the Dead fantasy.

RATING PG (mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images)

CAST Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum


BOTTOM LINE Stunning children's movie about death and remembrance.

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