It's rare, and in a weird way even kind of special, to see a film do so much in such a narrow way to sabotage itself as The Book of Life does. The second theatrical feature created at Reel FX Animation Studios - better in every describable regard than their first film, last autumn's atrocious Free Birds - makes the best out of its meager resources relying on color and design to make up for a tight budget and lack of experience in their animation, while telling a familiar story with enough charm and basic human decency that its mustiness is, if not converted into a strength, at least obviated. It celebrates the culture and art of a minority group without ever, ever, ever making a big deal about doing so. It presents a love story - in what is unabashedly a kids' movie, please understand - that actually resembles the way that grown-up adults who like and and respect each other go about romance. And what could possibly come along to fuck all of this up?

Pop music.

That longstanding boil on the ass of American animation! Ever since Shrek decided that blasting Smash Mouth made more sense than actually writing a story conclusion, every studio worth talking about besides Pixar has given into that hideous addiction at least intermittently, using bubblegum hits to prop up whatever montage or character moment isn't strong enough on the writing and visuals to work the way it's supposed to. This has long since become simply part of the background radiation: hardly worth noticing as a fresh complaint, unless it goes very, very badly. In The Book of Life, it goes very badly. The film predominately takes place in central Mexico, in what is vaguely identifiable as the latter half of the 19th Century, so it's anachronistic to start with; but anachronisms are tolerable, in their way. Certainly, the jokes and performances don't pretend to hew to historical realism. Tonally, it's a worse fit: the film is an explicit fairytale with a joyous timelessness about it, and having it stop - rather frequently, at that - to launch into a jokey cover of such things as Radiohead's "Creep" or, Lord help us, Biz Markie's "Just a Friend" is galling in the extreme. And they're shitty covers, at that: limply arranged to sound vaguely mariachi-esque in their instrumentation, but coming off as tacky and gimmicky, and revealing Diego Luna to have a pleasant but certainly not exceptional voice. And to top it all off, it's overtly hypocritical: the frame narrative, in which a museum tour guide (Christina Applegate) tells a rowdy group of delinquent schoolkids a story from a book of Mexican folklore, more or less explicitly claims that Kids These Days can be thoroughly entertained and entranced by traditional narratives that have nothing to do with the amped-up world of the 21st Century. Or, they can be distracted by shitty versions of songs that used up all their cultural currency before those kids were born.

That might sound like a petty thing to be that much of a bother, but there's poor choices with distract from a film, and poor choices which stop the film dead and rip it into pieces and then take a steaming shit on them. Which is what happens in The Book of Life, and it's a goddamn shame, because otherwise, everything goes terribly well. The story revolves around a trio of friends, Maria (Zoe Saldana), the daughter of the richest man in town and owner of a pig who is 2014's best cartoon animal, Manolo (Diego Luna), an aspiring mariachi from a family of bullfighters, and Joaquin (famed Latino actor Channing Tatum), the orphan son of a great soldier, fiercely defending the countryside from bandits. As will happen, the boys are both in love with the girl, who playfully encourages them both, though the film never succeeds or even tries to pretend that it's not clear who she's going to end up with (that Maria might make good on her vaguely-expressed desire to remain single isn't seriously contemplated as an option). They're caught up in the schemes of supernatural lovers/archenemies La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), rulers of the good afterlife and bad afterlife, respectively. Betting with mortal lives, as godlike entities are wont to do, they form a wager contingent on which young man wins Maria's hand; when things go wrong for Xibalba, he cheats, and Manolo ends up dead - on the Day of the Dead itself, no less, which makes things a bit more complicated and colorful for him as he strives to get back to the mortal world to return to Maria.

Nothing too complex about that; the film's spirit shines through mostly in its characters, both dramatically and stylistically. What's astonishing about The Book of Life is that it does something that even most adult love stories don't do: it presents all sides of its triangle as fundamentally nice, likable human beings who have only the usual sets of not terribly damning flaws. Even its immortal beings seem to share one of the healthiest marriages in recent cinema, openly affectionate and quick to resolve fights with honesty and mutual respect. And while none of the film's performances outside Perlman's do much of particular interest with those characters, they're all lively enough that watching them interact and have their little emotional journeys is satisfying in every way. Except the ways that involve Manolo fucking singing (though there are two originals, by Paul Williams and Gustavo Santaolalla, and I wouldn't trade either of those).

Meanwhile, the story is being enacted back at that museum by brightly colored puppets, and when we see the character in the film, they always resembles the blocks of painted wood that they are in "reality". What could, and even should be an annoying distancing effect turns out to be a great triumph: like Pixar before them, Reel FX seems to have figured out that inanimate objects are easier to animated and render in satisfying form than organic life (the humans in the frame narrative look pretty dire, even through their extreme stylisation), and by explicitly casting the whole thing as a tribute to Mexican folk art, it gives the design team license to make the human world and the afterlife alike burst with impossible architecture and bold colors and flowing lines that grab your eyeballs and pull them in and around in the film's world in an orgy of visual play.

Turn off the sound, and it's the most splendid-looking animated feature made in the U.S. in 2014; pull out every joke and three or four of the comic side characters, and it's the sweetest, most humane children's movie of the year. But Christ, those songs; and beyond that, while more of a nuisance than a real problem, the jokes have a tendency towards broad punchlines that only want to get away with entertaining children, rather than do something unexpected for them - and this, too, is maybe hypocritical. Director and co-writer (with Douglas Langdale) Jorge R. Gutierrez clearly gets characters, and the endless draw of seeing elementally simple fables told with spirit, and he's great at shepherding us through the fussily charming toybox world of his film, with all its loving admiration for Mexico's history and stylistic exuberance. Why he would cut his own film off at the knees with such screeching, clattering messiness, I cannot say, but he's ended up with a movie that is absolutely likable, but sometimes feels more like it's something to endure than something to enjoy.