It only takes the first few moments of Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride to realize that the filmmaker is unquestionably in his element. Strangely stylized characters'all vertiginously angled noses and physics-defying hairdos'wander the streets of a vaguely Victoria-era town. Fishmongers go monotonously about their business, everything around them echoing their languor with a color palette ranging from gray to slightly-darker-gray. The world is dark, grotesque and singularly fascinating.
Which, of course, have always been Tim Burton’s preferred creative adjectives. Trained as an animator in the early 1980s, Burton has spent much of his live-action directing career trying to manipulate real-life sets and actors into the same not-of-this-earth visions he clearly sees in his head, and which he applied to his stop-motion collaborations with Henry Selick, The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach.
In Corpse Bride, Burton again retreats into a universe that mixes Rankin-Bass with Grand Guignol, and once again finds effortless enchantment where his live-action films have often seemed to strain too hard. The plot upon which Burton hangs this production hinges on an arranged marriage between Victor Van Dort (voiced of Johnny Depp) and Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson). It’s a match that makes sense for both families'the nouveau riche Van Dorts want respectability, and the old nobility Everglots want an infusion of cash'but not for the anxious pair who have never met.
So when the clumsy Victor makes a mess of the wedding rehearsal, he flees into the woods to get his head straight. Except that when he practices his vows, he places his ring on what turns out to be the finger of Emily (Helena Bonham Carter)'a restless spirit trying to find the happiness she lost when her life was cut short on her own wedding day.
The resulting romantic triangle is given a nice enough shape by a trio of screenwriters, including Nightmare Before Christmas scribe Caroline Thompson and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s John August. Songs by Burton’s longtime collaborator Danny Elfman give the storylines an extra jolt of energy, and the talented voice cast contributes better work than you often find from celebrity names slumming in animation.
But fundamentally satisfying though the narrative may be, Corpse Bride works best as a visual showpiece. When the action moves from the land of the living to the land of the dead, Burton portrays the underworld in vivid primary colors and boisterous carousing'those who still breathe have considerably less fun than their moldering counterparts here. Uncooperative eyeballs roll around and squirt from skulls; a decapitated “head waiter” bustles about with the aid of insect-like legs. Burton (who shares directing credit with Mike Thompson, an animating veteran of both Nightmare and James) lets his grim imagination run wild, turning the film into the morbidly funny Haunted Mansion movie I could image without a mugging Eddie Murphy.
And it’s not merely incidental that Burton and company employ old-school stop-motion animation (a history to which Burton nods by giving a grand piano the brand name “Harryhausenâ€). There’s an undeniably tactile quality to the places and characters in Corpse Bride that make them somehow more real'ironically, probably more real than many of the places and characters Burton has attempted to create in live-action films. Many of the characters may not have a pulse, but this world sure does.
The thin fairy tale of a plot does at times seem inconsequential, and perhaps rushed to a conclusion that could have been given more room to breathe. But this is still a cinematic landscape that repeatedly offers something weird and wonderful to look at'the kind of landscape where you suspect Tim Burton would just as soon build a house and settle down.