Don't let the creepy title of this animated, musical tale throw you off. In the tradition of other excellent, animated features of recent years, The Corpse Bride will surely rank as one of the best. Granted, this kind of film may not be for all tastes, but if you can get past the title and are game for a wondrous, haunting world of fantasy and love, then this is your meal ticket.
Victor and his parents meet Victoria and her family to attend a wedding rehearsal. Unbeknownst to Victor's family, it seems Victoria's parents are broke and desperately need the marriage to secure their future. Yet, marriage is new to the nervous Victor, and when he gets jittery at the church, he runs off and into the woods to collect his thoughts. There, he jokingly recites his wedding vows and slips his wedding band on a finger shaped piece of what appears to be wood. The next thing he knows, the wooden finger is a real finger belonging to a former bride, and she has sprung 'alive' to his offer of marriage. As Victor reels in horror and confusion at his 'corpse bride', he is whisked away to another world of people who have died. While the corpse bride is partly decomposed, she retains much of her former beauty. Yet others in this strange land are mere skeletons and rotted flesh. It turns out that the corpse bride was to be married, but her groom had evil plans for her. She has been waiting for her true love ever since her demise. Meanwhile, Victoria's parents are approached by a mysterious, handsome suitor who wants to marry Victoria. Victor must make a fateful decision and choose between the two brides even as the dead descend on the land of the living for a wedding ceremony like none other. One groom and two brides-what to do? This is Tim Burton's latest foray into stop motion animation, and he and Mike Johnson direct with economy from a relatively simple screenplay by John August, Pamela Pettler, and Caroline Thompson. The characters, especially Victor and the corpse bride, are well etched and create an emotional bond with the audience. Although we want Victor to marry his love Victoria, we grow to feel sympathy and attachment to the corpse bride as well. As for the images of the dead, Burton and company do a delightful job of making what, on the outset, could be grotesque and turning them into energized, playful souls. There is a terrific Peter Lorre homage with a worm who keeps popping in and out of the bride's eye socket. After a short time, the skeletal limbs and discolored dead no longer seem frightening or gross. Ironically the most colorful sequences involve the world of the dead while the living are painted in austere, lifeless mutes of gray.
Much of the production team are veterans of other Burton films. Longtime collaborator Danny Elfman again provides an atmospheric score and a handful of nifty, little songs to move things along. Even the voices of the principals are Burton alumni, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter (Burton's significant other). Give Depp credit for voicing a British sounding character convincingly while others like Emily Watson, Albert Finney, Christopher Lee and Tracey Ullman, to name a few, are quite effective at bringing their figures to life. It's a testament to Burton's imaginative appeal that twice the usual number of major acting talents contributed to this work.
For all those who loved Burton's earlier produced efforts, The Nightmare Before Christmas (whose ghoulish nature is quite similar) and James and the Giant Peach, this is a worthy followup. The animation itself is virtually seamless, and the characters and figures move as in real life. It is a far cry from the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials of the 1960's. The set designs and costumes are very much Gothic in style. It seems that Burton is drawing from his own films or is perpetuating his influences as evidenced in his previous films like Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands particularly in his obsession with the good and evil in man. It also delves into the perception of life versus death. Who is really alive and who acts like the nonliving? It is evident that the true antecedent of The Corpse Bride is Burton's own version of Washington Irving's Sleepy Hollow with a nod toward Dickens (with its contrast in class distinction and its unsavory characters), especially the Miss Havisham character in Great Expectations.
The Corpse Bride marks a continuing peak in the current revival of animated feature films which was signaled by Toy Story a decade earlier and has been raised to new heights with such recent triumphs as Shrek and Finding Nemo. The final shot is a wondrous, memorable end that recalls the transformation scene in Disney's classic, Beauty and the Beast. In fact, so good is its animation and technique that it is easy to forgive any shortcomings in what is basically a one act, one note story albeit told with sincerity. With just a bit more pathos and storyline, Burton's team would have had an instant classic. It's a near miss, but its status as the best animated film of the year is secure.