With visionary filmmaking artist Tim Burton (2005's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
") returning to the realm of stop-motion animation after a twelve-year hiatus, there was no reason to believe "Corpse Bride" would be anything but a worthy, albeit unrelated, follow-up to 1993's wondrous "The Nightmare Before Christmas." While Burton only produced that earlier classic (Henry Selick had the directing reigns), his handprints were clearly all over it. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a motion picture having more imagination, with Halloweentown resident and dreamer Jack Skellington discovering a gateway to other worlds and holidays he had no idea existed. The claymation animation was a gorgeous feast for the eyes, the songs by Danny Elfman toe-tappingly catchy, the characters nicely developed, and the story overflowing with both morose danger and genuine sweetness.
"Corpse Bride"or "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride," as the title appears onscreenis none of the above, and then less. A second-rate, instantly forgettable family film that will give younger viewers the heebie-jeebies with its grim subject matter, it is as hollow as a skeleton's chest cavity. Despite the fact that stop-motion animation is a long, painstaking process that takes years to complete, "Corpse Bride" is curiously lacking in inspiration, playing like one of Disney's direct-to-video cartoon sequels rather than a solid successor to the groundbreaking treasures of "The Nightmare Before Christmas." The promising plot is put to weak use, the characters are boring one-dimensional ciphers, and the four musical numbers range from mediocre to shockingly awful. This is easily one of Burton regular Danny Elfman's lesser scoring and songwriting efforts.
The premise concerns a lanky, accident-prone young bachelor named Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp), offspring of wealthy parents Nell (the unbeatable Tracey Ullman) and William (Paul Whitehouse), who is scheduled for an arranged marriage to Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson). Upon meeting the kind, soft-spoken Victoria, Victor hits it off with her, but soon has embarrassed himself during the wedding rehearsal. Ashamed of himself for possibly ruining a good thing, Victor escapes into the woods. In a fluke, he places the ring on what he believes to be a thin branch and proposes marriage, thereby accidentally resurrecting the deteriorating, skeleton-handed Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter). She, who became a murdered victim on her wedding day, instantly believes they are married and meant for one another, but Victor thinks differently. How, after all, could a living person possibly have a romantic relationship (or any relationship, for that matter) with a dead girl?
Suggestions of necrophilia notwithstanding, "Corpse Bride" strives for an innocent tone that it doesn't quite grasp. Any way you look at, the movie is a just a little creepy and enormously morbid (and not in a good way), treating death mostly for jokes concerning body decay. Of course, it still could have worked had Victor's and the Corpse Bride's relationship grown enough for the viewer to care about them, but it isn't satisfactorily developed at all. The notion that the Corpse Bride was brutally killed and buried is mentioned and then mostly washed over without any mention of the life she left behind and the regrets she has about no longer being alive. Meanwhile, the identity of her murderer is sloppily obvious from the moment he first walks into the frame. As for protagonist Victor, he is uninteresting to say the least, matched by Johnny Depp's (2004's "Secret Window
") blank voiceover work.
Without any discernible connection between Victor and the Corpse Bridea little more successful is his gentle pairing with fiancée Victoria"Corpse Bride" falls apart and fails to rebuild itself. In between the dialogue-driven exposition are four original songs, each of them so stale and dreary that they evaporate from the viewer's mind before the sequences are even over. One musical number involving Bonejangles (voiced by Elfman) and his skeletal singing group, presented upon a black background, is so cheesy-looking it approaches the level of a student film. The stop-motion animation proper is certainly atmospheric and technically impressive, but the problem is that the images don't call for much in the way of creativity outside of a scene set in the forest. Mostly, the locations are of the interior room variety, and hold little of the boundless energy and textural details that made "The Nightmare Before Christmas" such a rousing, beatific success.
As one of the fall's early releases, "Corpse Bride" ranks as the season's first unadulterated disappointment. There is no doubt that director Tim Burton is a modern-day master craftsman, but somehow the pieces haven't come together into a satisfying whole this time around. So much time was spent on the animation, it would seem, that the screenplay by John August, Pamela Pettler and Caroline Thompson got lost in the shuffle. "Corpse Bride" is a sadly threadbare waste, not funny or scary or exciting or involving enough to leave the viewer with anything to care about or remember. It's almost as if, like the Corpse Bride herself, the film hardly exists at all.