The animated Corpse Bride is first and foremost a Tim Burton film, the work of a director with an extremely recognizable style and macabre sensibility, both of which have earned him a legion of loyal fans. If you think Tim Burton is a genius, then watching this film will be like rediscovering the eccentricities of an old friend. All of Burton's best quirks are on full display here, so much so that you wish the film would take the time to break from pure storytelling to indulge its characters.
According to Burton's Web site, the story for Corpse Bride comes from an old Russian folktale in which a man accidentally recites his wedding vows to a buried bride. The tale was inspired by the rampant anti-Semitism in early-19th-century Russia, which led to the murder of many Jewish brides, who would often be interred in their wedding garb.
Corpse Bride takes this tale and turns into an adolescent romance. The leading man is Victor Van Dort (voiced by Burton regular Johnny Depp), the shy son of wealthy fishmongers. Victor is betrothed to Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), the daughter of bankrupt aristocrats. The elder Everglots are by far the most visually stimulating couple in the film. Mr. Everglot (Albert Finney) is a frowning, Napoleonic Humpty Dumpty, and his wife (Joanna Lumley) is equal parts Elvira and Dudley Do-Right.
The young Victorians meet for the first time at their wedding rehearsal, but the two fall for each other immediately. When Victor bumbles his vows, he retreats to the woods in shame and ends up proposing to a buried bride. This sets the two families on their ear and gives Victor's scheming romantic rival, Lord Barkus (Richard E. Grant), a vacancy to fill. The entrance of Emily, the corpse bride (Helena Bonham Carter), gives Burton free rein to introduce his world of gory (and Gorey) creatures. Emily takes her new husband down to her home, the underworld.
The film, like the Burton-produced The Nightmare Before Christmas (his only other animated feature), is a musical of sorts, scored by Burton's longtime collaborator Danny Elfman. Victor is introduced to his new home in the film's biggest musical number, a skeletal swing that culminates in a black-light ballet.
The joy of the film is in the details. The zombie bride manages to somehow look beautiful, shimmering in a luminous cloud that gathers around her tattered veil and wild hair. The chin of the villainous Barkus could be a character in itself, smirking and swaying with devilish grace. The drawback to these details is that stop-motion animation is a laborious enterprise, and this film, like The Nightmare Before Christmas, clocks in at only an hour and 15 minutes, which makes Corpse Bride feel rushed.
The humor is hit or miss. Burton packs the movie with posthumous puns, which mostly miss their mark. His humor works best when it emerges organically from his oddball cast, like the scheming maggot that lives in Emily's eyesocket and speaks in a rasping imitation of Peter Lorre.
What is interesting about the film is that it doesn't confirm what seem to be Burton's own feelings about the dead -- that they are somehow more interesting and attractive than the rest of us. In the film's finale, denizens of the underworld are successfully reintroduced among the living, yet this love story cannot ultimately be between two people who don't share a pulse.
Opening Friday, September 23rd