Not too long ago, animated movies seemed to be nestled snuggly into one of three camps– Pixar/Disney, Dreamworks, and “other”. But the emergence of studios like Blue Sky (Rio, Ice Age), Laika (ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls), and Illumination (Despicable Me) in recent years has broadened the landscape, and though the results have been up and down, occasionally something cuts through the clutter and offers something truly fresh.

And so it is with The Book of Life, the sophomore animated feature from ReelFX (Free Birds).

Taking its inspiration from the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration, The Book of Life is the brainchild of first-time director Jorge Gutierrez, who gives us a brilliant palette of vibrant colors and some of the most inventive character design in years. But its producer Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim) who really leaves his mark on the film. His uniquely twisted vision helps The Book of Life give similar films like Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas a run for their money.

A present day-set bookend involving an elementary class field trip to a local museum frames a fantastical tale set in Mexico, where friends Joaquin (Channing Tatum) and Manolo (Diego Luna) vie for the affections of the lovely Maria (Zoe Saldana). Maria, though, in a credit to screenwriters Gutierrez and Douglas Langdale, isn’t some silly, pie-eyed princess who only lives to get swept off her feet by a hunky fella. Her independence is a fresh departure from so many other recent kids’ movies, with the exception of Frozen and a few others, which actually take the time to develop female characters.

The real star of The Book of Life, though, is the terrifically whimsical animation, highlighted by the brightest, most vivid colors this side of Roy Lichtenstein. And even when the story seems to wander a little more than necessary (including a bizarro little bit with Ice Cube voicing “the Candlemaker”, the guardian of the living world), it’s impossible to not be blown away by the spectacle in front of you.

4/5 stars