Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride is a new stop-motion animation feature in the vein of the cult favorite Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Both feature a similarly conventional love story, and both are set in the reliably marketable director’s trademark fairy-tale world.
The demands of the stop-motion method keep Corpse Bride at a brief 78 minutes. Yet due to an underdeveloped script and tons of repetitive and cutesy “dead” jokes, it sometimes feels pretty long.
It is a rare thing when a director’s name appears in the title of a movie, especially when he’s not the one who directed it. The Nightmare Before Christmas was actually directed by stop-motion whiz Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Monkeybone). Tim Burton did not write the screenplay either, but it was based on a story and characters that he created. Strangely enough, “Corpse Bride,” although still retaining Burton’s name in the title, was not written by the master gothsman. Instead, Burton gets a co-directing credit.
Either way, the two movie’s themes are very similar. The premise is again deliciously dark and mildly subversive. But it is also slight. Perhaps the director should have spent more time punching up the script and, like Nightmare, left the directing duties to another.
Many of Burton’s frequent collaborators are back. Danny Elfman provides the music, and Johnny Depp voices Victor, a hapless young man whose family has betrothed him to Victoria (voiced by Emily Watson). Although the marriage is arranged, the couple hit it off during their first meeting when the bride-to-be hears Victor play the piano. Her family discourages artistic expression as a waste of time, and she is encouraged by his playing, recognizing Victor’s inner humanity right away.
Things become complicated for the couple when, while rehearsing his vows in a nearby forest, Victor places his wedding ring on what he believes to be a tree branch. Alas, it is the skeletal finger of a woman (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter) who was murdered on her wedding night and is still pining for a husband.
Victor is then dragged from the dreary land of the living by his new corpse bride, and crosses the threshold into the exciting, brightly-colored world of the dead. The upstairs purples and grays are replaced by vivid colors in the underworld, one of several nice touches in the art direction department.
Living characters are dull, rendered as either tall and impossibly thin or short and grotesquely rotund. Dead characters, on the other hand, are designed with a more fantastic style, and come in grimly funny states of disrepair. The corpse bride herself has a wise-cracking maggot sidekick who lives in her right eyesocket and pops out momentarily for some witty banter. These morbidly clever touches assist the movie during tedious downtimes in the story.
The perverse humor and constant punning takes its toll, though, when it becomes clear that the plot is not going anywhere. Naming a dead Napoleon-looking character General Bonesapart is cutesy in that macabre way that everything in Burton’s world is, but the movie falls back on these moments to disguise the fact that nothing is happening. The premise itself is played out almost the moment it is introduced.
The characters themselves also literally go nowhere. For an animated film that is able to create its own inventive locations, Corpse Bride has surprisingly few. Everything takes place in a couple of buildings, the forest, or the underworld. Since the film’s visuals are its one attractive characteristic, it is frustrating that there is not more variety in the settings. This lack of different scenery is also confusing, considering that the animators look to have had many tools at their disposal. Although it is billed as a stop-motion feature, many of the movie’s more fluid-moving scenes seem to include some computer-generated images as well.
For an ending that was telegraphed from the get-go, it is also oddly unsatisfying, due to a lack of explanation on the rules of the lands both dead and living. The fate of one of the main characters is a cop-out that is “explained” visually and then never questioned, probably because the writers aren’t sure what it really means anyway.
As a whole, Corpse Bride is not a complete stiff, but merely a disappointment. The adorable “dead” humor is intermittently funny, but not even enough to sustain the film’s short running time.