Director Tim Burton, a maestro of macabre moviemaking, has certainly had his share of hits (such as this summer's delectable "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" adaptation) and misfires (2001's misbegotten "Planet of the Apes" remake or 2003's underwhelming "Big Fish," for example). His newest feature, "Corpse Bride," is a stop-motion animated musical with a tone and style similar to that of "The Nightmare Before Christmas," but with strangely little of that film's energy or heart. While "Corpse Bride" is visually arresting and exceptionally witty, the characters and story are curiously uninvolving, and the movie's scant 75-minute length, though time well spent, seems much more protracted.
The central figure in many of Burton's films is often an isolated, misunderstood character, one who feels outcast or seems unable to interact with others. In "Corpse Bride," this archetype is occupied by Victor Van Dort (voice of Johnny Depp), an awkward, shy young man who, despite being clearly unprepared for marriage, has been betrothed to the sweet Victoria Everglot (voice of Emily Watson). Their parents have arranged the union due to the financial boon they think their families' alliance will offer, but Victor's ineptitude during the wedding rehearsal threatens to derail their plans. Victor retreats to a forest to practice his wedding vows, and unknowingly slips Victoria's wedding ring on a dead woman's finger protruding from the ground.
This Corpse Bride (voice of Helena Bonham Carter) rises from the earth and accepts her position as Victor's legal wife, further bewildering the nervous young man. Emily (the Corpse Bride's name before her tragic murder, which she recounts to Victor), soon shows Victor that an entire underworld of the living dead exists beneath his mundane town. With Victor's disappearance, Victoria's parents waste no time plotting a new liaison for their daughter, with a shady businessman named Barkis Bittern (voice of Richard E. Grant). "Corpse Bride" thus becomes the story of Victor's struggle to return to the world of the living, as he questions whether to give his devotion to the deceased Emily or the living Victoria.
The decision to include musical numbers in "Corpse Bride," though perhaps not a bad idea in concept (a similarly dark tale was set to song brilliantly in "The Nightmare Before Christmas"), unfortunately doesn't work well in the movie. The songs are uninspired and forgettable, and seem to actually do something of a disservice to the story. When Emily tells of the plot that led to her death and how she arrived in the underworld, everything is explained within one song; the underworld setting and the story of Emily's past life are somewhat disappointing, and feel skirted over. Conversely, too much attention is given to the scheming pairs of parents; the action focuses excessively on them instead of Victoria while Victor is in the underworld. "Corpse Bride" also fails to craft an engaging story to center its action around; no character in the film, not even Victor or Emily, seems to develop much of a connection. Additionally, the film's events lack urgency and suspense (this is an adventure into an underworld, after all), and the ending can be predicted from very early on. It's a shame that "Corpse Bride" has not been afforded the narrative zeal of "The Nightmare Before Christmas," an oversight that at times causes the film to feel as lifeless as its namesake character.
Of course, "Corpse Bride" still has a quite a lot going for it. The stop-motion animation, accented by Burton's strong visual flair and impeccable attention to detail, is a joy to behold. At times it is easy to forget that the film has been created using carefully-manipulated figures and lovingly hand-assembled sets rather than computer-generated animation. "Corpse Bride" is a reminder that extravagant technology isn't always necessary to produce a visual knockout.
The film's script, co-penned by frequent Burton screenwriter John August, contains an ample amount of the trademark wit and dark humor that has populated so many of Burton's films. "Corpse Bride" is very funny. At times, it's a very enjoyable film, but it's ultimately completely forgettable and represents one of the year's most disappointing missed opportunities.