It’s a (typical) paradox in Gothic director Tim Burton’s career that it took a meticulously timed stop-motion animation film to loosen him up. But after many years in which it seemed that Burton got lost in the woods of his own lugubrious style, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride returned him to the black-comedy riches of Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas.
In fact, the many fans of Nightmare will find Corpse Bride a not-so-distant cousin. The story concerns Victor and Victoria (voiced by Johnny Depp and Emily Watson), their names an ominous reflection of the Victorian era in which they were raised. They’re to be married almost before they even meet each other; the couple’s parents arranged the marriage on their own as a convenient (for them) union of money and status.
A befuddled Victor is out in the woods, reciting his wedding vows, when a decedent from Down Below (Helena Bonham Carter) happily takes Victor at his word. Now Victor, who previously couldn’t get one woman to pay him attention, now has two vying for his affections; it just happens that one of them is inconveniently dead.
Once the movie visits the Corpse Bride’s, er, alternate society, it really goes to town and never looks back. It’s obvious where Burton’s allegiances lay; it’s actually the afterlife that’s richly colored and layered, while the “live” world labors in an almost completely black-and-white atmosphere, as though they’re practicing to be dead. And haven’t we all met a few people like that?
The movie is a finely tuned clockwork of non-stop invention, never letting the audience know where it’s going and asking us to just enjoy the ride. Danny Elfman, Burton’s long-time musical collaborator, provides a calliope of sounds and styles that only add flavor to this very exotic mix, as does the rich cast of voices (including veterans such as Albert Finney and Christopher Lee).
Dealing humorously with death requires a very fine skill; go too far over the top, as did Burton’s recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the discomfort starts to gnaw at you. Here, as in most of his best work, Burton finds just the right macabre tone, like respectful trick-or-treaters at Halloween. It’s a very liberating tonic that casts most of this year’s animated features into the shadows.
Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride is rated PG for comic-book-style peril and macabre humor.