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Tim Burton's Corpse Bride   B-

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG
Directors: Mike Johnson, Tim Burton
Writers: John August, Caroline Thompson, Pamela Pettler
Cast: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Tracy Ullman, Paul Whitehouse, Joanna Lumley, Albert Finney, Richard E. Grant.

Review by Rob Vaux

It's a testament to Tim Burton's vision that even when he blows it, the results are still watchable. Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, a long-cherished project touted as the successor to his beloved Nightmare Before Christmas, doesn't quite blow it, but it comes far too close for comfort. It's a malnourished effort at best, struggling to fill a mere 76 minutes by stretching its concept thinner than the skeletons that populate its stop-motion underworld. Comparing it to Nightmare does nothing but highlight its dreadful inadequacies... and yet thanks to Burton's always fertile imagination, it still delivers modest entertainment.

This is due in no small part to the animation style, which has been updated with new technical advances, but retains the same irresistible charms as Nightmare. There's a sense of handcrafted whimsy about it, lending the characters depth and personality by the merest fact of their existence. With studios producing an increasingly soulless supply of CGI animation, the efforts here stand out as the very best the medium has to offer: possessing an individuality that speaks to delicate care, even if the process is as corporate-controlled as any other big-budget film.

The style perfectly compliments Burton and co-director Mike Johnson's Victorian Gothic landscape, a world full of the living dead and the dead living. We are introduced to Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp), the sensitive son of the nouveau riche from a city that is two parts Dickens' London and one part Transylvania. Victor is one of Burton's trademark misunderstood souls, bullied by his domineering parents and misunderstood by his aristocratic but penniless in-laws-to-be. Indeed, so nervous is he about his impending marriage to the comely Victoria Everglott (voiced by Emily Watson) that he is banished from the wedding rehearsal and forced to wander in the nearby woods. There, while trying to memorize his often-botched lines, he slips a ring on what he assumes to be a dead twig -- but which is in fact the finger of the title character (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter). The act binds them both in matrimony, wreaking havoc on the wedding plans, but also exposing Victor to his new bride's undead universe -- a considerably jollier place than the bloodless conformity of his earthbound life.

As a concept, it's fantastic; Burton's concepts often are. The trouble comes -- as it does in far too many of his films -- when attempting to translate a great idea into a viable story. Corpse Bride never cares to labor out a plot, keeping its structure wafer thin and relying on its visual splendor to keep us occupied. It's a tragic mistake, for as the film progresses its assets become more repetitive and less beguiling. A seeming complication arrives with the evil Barkis Bittern (voiced by Richard E. Grant), who has some sinister plans for Victoria and a not-so-pleasant past with the Corpse Bride. But his villainy is squandered because the film never really decides what to do with it. He lurks and schemes brilliantly, but the script never clarifies what those schemes are beyond the most expedient and contrite details. Instead, it falls back on reveling in the stunning animation that brings him to life... and eventually even that begins to wear out.

The most damning evidence against Corpse Bride lies in its scant running time -- short even by animation standards -- and in the fact that it still feels about 20 minutes too long. Danny Elfman provides some welcome padding with a series of typically clever songs, but even they can only hold the line for so long. Without them, there is nothing but a good notion in search of direction, and some simple platitudes that never rise above the muddled. The disappointment and lost potential they represent is enormous, and yet they still aren't enough to sink the film's better elements.

The universe on display is consistently compelling: a trifle less brilliant than Nightmare's, perhaps, but possessing unique qualities all its own. The voice work is first-rate, featuring plenty of Burton regulars like Michael Gough and Christopher Lee. And the fairy-tale atmosphere, so delicate that a stiff breeze will blow it to pieces, remains intact despite the lack of any real structure to support it. A letdown Tim Burton's Corpse Bride most certainly is, but it's a letdown with benefits, and those benefits duly reward the effort to seek them out... even if the vehicle beneath them never matches their magic.

Review published 09.26.2005.

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