It’s not exactly a sequel to “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” certainly the finest double-holiday film ever made (and one of the finest about any holiday at all), but “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride” is the next best thing: another visually witty stop-motion animation piece that mingles the gleefully macabre and the sweetly sentimental. Coming so soon after “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” it means that Burton is responsible for two of the season’s more enjoyable movies.
It must be noted, however, that “Corpse Bride” isn’t quite up to the standard of “Nightmare.” The earlier picture was almost consistently brilliant in content as well as execution, a virtually perfect mixture of the bizarre and the delightful. This one has moments of real inspiration, but mostly it’s agreeable rather than entrancing. Where it stands out is, undoubtedly, the visuals, which are gloomily beautiful throughout. Some of the compositions are such that individual shots wouldn’t be out of place framed on a museum wall. The backgrounds have the dark, moody look of Burton’s typically imaginative landscapes, and the stop-motion character animation, with figures varying from the positively spindly to balloon-like plump, is extraordinary; the total effect comes nearly as close to the look of German expressionist films of the silent era as Charles Laughton’s “Night of the Hunter” did in 1955. The flawlessly-judged textures and subdued colors, which in roughly half the scenes are almost entirely bled out, add to the ravishing effect. The voice work is almost as good as the images, with Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Emily Watson all excellent as the members of the romantic triangle at the center of things and such stalwarts as Tracey Ullman, Albert Finney, Richard E. Grant, Christopher Lee and Michael Gough providing excellent support. Burton’s frequent collaborator Danny Elfman provides another of his patented “magical” scores, as well as a series of songs that are tuneful if not terribly memorable. (The lyrics aren’t always easy to make out, either.)
In terms of the narrative, though, this film doesn’t match the wild-eyed perversity of its predecessor. Victor Van Dort (Depp), the shy, nervous son of a nouveau riche fish mogul (Paul Whitehouse) and his social-climbing wife (Ullman), is engaged to wed Victoria Everglot (Watson), daughter of the noble but bankrupt Lord Finis (Finney) and the snooty Maudeline (Joanna Lumley), who plan to use the new in-law’s cash to save their hides. Unfortunately, during a rehearsal of the ceremony before the imperious Pastor Galswells (Lee), Victor freezes and runs out into the woods, where he puts the ring on what he takes to be a branch but turns out to be the bony finger of the titular cadaver (Carter), who was buried in her bridal gown after being betrayed and killed by a groom who was only after her parents’ money. She looks upon the “marriage” thereby entered with Victor as irrevocable, and takes him down to the underworld to celebrate with the rest of the (decidedly energetic) dead in a sequence that might be thought of as a skeletal version of the china-and-appliance numbers from “Beauty and the Beast.” Victor’s goal is to detach himself from his posthumous bride and return to Victoria, but he’s stymied not only by his new commitment but by the intervention of a replacement groom, the preening Barkis Bittern (Grant), who’s clearly up to no good.
This scenario offers some good opportunities for some charmingly gruesome touches–a “head waiter” who’s actually just a head, a wisecracking maggot that lives inside the corpse bride’s cranium and sounds like Peter Lorre–and the scripters have sprinkled in some gags that should appeal to the cognoscenti (a piano that bears the name of stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen, a famous line from “Gone With the Wind”). But as a whole “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride” is engaging rather than transporting. It certainly exudes Burton’s quirky sensibility and showcases his penchant for the comically gruesome–there are lots of ping-pong eyeballs ricocheting around here–but in less inspired a form that he’s managed in his best work (not only “Nightmare” but also “Ed Wood”). Still, if the picture warrants adjectives like lovely and pleasant rather than ones like mind-blowing and enthralling, that still means that it’s a winningly lively treat.