Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride proves the director with a hairstyle as wild as his imagination can deliver a mostly melancholy tale in the animation medium, too.
Burton gave up about a decade ago on delivering unadulterated fun in favor of the decidedly adult — his characters are mentally tortured whether living or dead.
They come in both stripes in this stop-motion animation film that isn’t as bouncy or inventively characterized as its stylistic forerunner, The Nightmare Before Christmas (for which Burton produced and created the story; here he co-directs with Mike Johnson).
But this film has more grown-up themes at its core, and production leaps made in the 12 years since Nightmare are bedazzling. Without being told, you’d never know this ethereally beautiful film’s technique was to pose puppets, film one shot, then repeat those two steps thousands of times over.
Victor Van Dort (voice of Johnny Depp) is a study in an utter lack of self-assertion; when uttered in Christopher Lee’s ominous voice as a priest, even his last name sounds like a sentence passed.
This bumbling ninny with legs the size of Pixy Stix is the pawn in his parents’ arranged-marriage plan to climb up from their social status as fish-in-a-can merchants. So, too, is his betrothed, Victoria Everglot (voice of Emily Watson), whose parents aren’t the moneybags they would seem to be.
Burton and Johnson have fun with the visual contrasts of these two families. The Van Dort parents could be straight from a Monty Python animation from Terry Gilliam, while the Everglots — particularly father, Finis, essentially a rotund torso with a head attached — look straight from Gerald Scarfe’s album design for Pink Floyd’s The Wall. (Albert Finney, as the voice of Finis, turns “Fetch me musket” into the year’s funniest catchphrase.)
The good news is that Victor and Victoria (yes, one of several groaning one-liners) genuinely like each other. But Victor picks a bad time to correctly recite the vows he’s bobbled in rehearsal — in spooky woods and before inadvertently placing the ring on the hand of Emily (voice of Helena Bonham Carter), a woman killed after her wedding night.
Victor is whisked away to the Land of the Dead, where a skeleton with composer Danny Elfman’s voice sings a swinging song about Emily’s sad tale. (Aside from that song, Elfman recycles the same heebie-jeebie lurch tempos as he did in Nightmare.)
Yes, there’s a man who literally splits in half to get out of Victor’s way, and Emily has a tear in her cheek, not on it. But most residents of the Land of the Dead are harmless comic relief rather than mildly macabre figures.
Standouts are Paul the Head Waiter, General Bonesapart and a maggot who looks like Steve Buscemi and, as the literal voice inside Emily’s head, talks like Peter Lorre.
But part of Corpse Bride’s charm is that the characters aren’t supposed to be super-spooky.
They’re just the coworkers, friends and loved ones missed by the people above in foggy London.
This provides both laugh-out-loud bits and a tender, quiet sensibility as some characters learn true love can mean a sacrificial gesture that means the world to someone else. Luckily, the mood takes precedence over a twist even the younger audience might see coming 20 minutes in.
Those viewers might like the film, but it’s not really aimed at them, and that statement has nothing to do with the fact that someone marries a dead woman.
Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride probably won’t spawn a cottage industry of Goth fashion at Hot Topic, but its angst-ridden story of love — both romantic and platonic — is likely to resonate stronger and longer with the teens and adults that shop there.
Burton might not be full-tilt fun anymore, but he knows how to find moments of hope in a story about dead dreams and dead people.