Should the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe ever go into business with claymation wizard Nick Park, the result might play something like “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.” More disjointed and less distinctive than 1993’s Burton-produced “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” this macabre musical about a young bridegroom who mistakenly weds a girl from beyond the grave is an endearingly schizoid Frankenstein of a movie, by turns relentlessly high-spirited and darkly poignant. While Warner Bros. faces a challenge in selling such an unapologetically ghoulish item to tykes and their content-wary parents, pic should easily attract and reward older viewers.
As demonstrated most recently in the superb first reel of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Burton works best when his wickedly off-kilter sensibility is filtered through a deliberately constricted visual and tonal range. For roughly half of “Corpse Bride,” Burton, co-helmer Mike Johnson and production designer Alex McDowell have done just that, using stop-motion animation to create a visually restrained yet richly expressionistic Victorian-era milieu.
Steeped in gloomy shadows and nimbly navigated by d.p. Pete Kozachik’s arsenal of high-angle and tracking shots, pic’s 19th-century European village populated by amusingly exaggerated clay puppets suggests an Edward Gorey illustration come to life. It’s a dazzlingly immersive and cinematic rendering of repression that extends the promise of creepy good fun.
Snazzy opening number “According to Plan” (penned by Burton’s regular composer-lyricist, Danny Elfman) introduces two sets of parents, the snooty old-money Everglots and the nouveau riche Van Dorts, whose respective offspring are being forced into holy, if money-motivated, matrimony.
As arranged marriages go, the prospect of this one seems happier than most. Shy, sensitive Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp) is a remarkably gifted pianist, a talent that enchants his betrothed, the lovely but equally timid Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson). The only hitch: The nervous groom is having trouble memorizing his vows.
A spectacularly grim misunderstanding occurs when Victor, walking alone in the forest at night practicing his lines, happens to recite his vows over a dead woman’s grave. In a scene that playfully recycles the ending of “Carrie,” Victor finds himself, face to rotting face, with the titular bride, who is instantly smitten with her new hubby and whisks him off to the underworld.
From the singing skeletons and bright bursts of color that greet Victor, it’s clear that the land of the dead is a far livelier, more liberated place than the world its inhabitants ominously refer to as “upstairs.”
Yet despite the bat-out-of-hell pacing and a show-stopping dance number led by a skeleton named Bonejangles (Elfman), it’s in this supernatural realm that “Corpse Bride” starts to look and feel more ordinary. Kozachik’s compositions flatten out, and the harsh, multihued lighting — in striking contrast to the velvety monochrome of the earlier scenes — has a tendency to show the occasional roughness of the animation.
Voiced by Helena Bonham Carter with equal parts tenderness and matter-of-fact tartness, the Corpse Bride herself is a beguilingly beautiful creation; it’s no exaggeration to say death becomes her. Never mind that her hair resembles mangled pasta, or that a wisecracking maggot (Enn Reitel) has taken up permanent residence in her eye socket, or that between this and “Nightmare,” Burton clearly has a thing for women with detachable limbs.
The emotional quandary that plays out between the Bride and the torn-but-terrified Victor, which culminates in a tentative but lovely piano duet, touches chords of genuine feeling.
Voice work is aces, perfectly in sync with the puppets’ astonishingly detailed facial expressions. Burton’s perennial muse Depp is in fine, self-effacing form as Victor; Joanna Lumley is a hoot as the outrageously snotty Maudeline Everglot; and Richard E. Grant is sneeringly good as wedding crasher Lord Barkis.
Written by past Burton scribes John August and Caroline Thompson with Pamela Pettler, script supplies a nonstop barrage of death-related jokes and puns that rarely overstay their welcome, although mileage may vary.
While morbid even by Burton’s standards, the material ultimately couldn’t be more good-natured or benign. Even when the dead stage a literal uprising in the third act, it only reinforces the notion that death itself is not the true enemy — a Burton theme that dates all the way back to 1988’s “Beetlejuice,” to which “Corpse Bride” draws countless other graphic and thematic references.
Though it takes some predictable turns, the story wraps on a perfectly muted note that rings a melancholy echo of the ending of “Nightmare.”
Elfman’s songs (with some additional lyrics by August) are fewer and overall less memorable than his tunes for that earlier film, but his score throughout sustains a delicate balance of the eerie and the whimsical.