Tim Burton had a big hand in making the amazing film The Nightmare Before Christmas, and now he's back to filming claymation ghouls and ghosts in his new movie Corpse Bride. But while this latest dip into stop-motion artistry contains every bit as much visual beauty as his previous flick, it never makes the same kind of magical connection Nightmare did with it's bubbly concoction of wry Halloween horrors and sweet-natured severed heads.
The difference is in our lead character, Victor Van Dort as voiced by Johnny Depp. Where Nightmare had a dynamic, pumpkin-headed central figure, Victor, like all the living creatures in this film, is a bland, pasty bore locked into the confines of a money-hungry class system. Picture an all clay version of Hugh Grant, without any of Grant's sarcastic charm. He inhabits a washed out looking village, where, his parents have become wealthy and successful fishmongers. To get prestige to go with their cash, they've betrothed him to Victoria (voiced by Emily Watson), the daughter of a snooty, local noble. It's an old story. Victoria's parents have lofty titles, but they're flat broke. To refill the family dynasty's coffers, they're eager to get their hands on the Van Dort family jewels.
Eventually, things get moving when Victor screws up their wedding rehearsal and stumbles out into the forest to get a little practice. There, in the strangest of accidents he accidentally marries a not-quite-as-stiff-as-you'd-think corpse. Not just any corpse mind you, the Corpse Bride (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter). She drags Victor down into the land of the dead and Tim Burton's style comes alive. The pits of the deceased are a visual feast of dancing skeletons, bright colors, and vibrant, beating, well… life.
Burton's point is painfully obvious. The dead are more alive than the living, and as a result it's a helluva lot more fun to kick the bucket than hang out in Victor's medieval hood. That also means the movie can be pretty boring whenever we're stuck with him in breather-world. Burton's having more fun with rotting corpses than mucking around with a tired old story of arranged marriages and money-hungry parents, and it shows. I realize the severe contrast between the living and dead is intentional, but that doesn't make those living characters any less banal. There's simply nothing to connect with in Victor. I mean, what kind of guy are we rooting for here? What sort of qualities does he have to recommend him? That he's not quite as big a weasel as his father? That he's not as hideously fat as his mother? That he's tends to go along with whatever anyone tells him? He's weak as a leading character. Toss him out and put more focus on the Corpse Bride and maybe you really have something. She's weirdly terrifying and ethereally beautiful all at once, a strange mixture of sadness and mind-numbing horror wrapped in a flowing, graceful wedding dress. But no matter how much screen time she gets, she isn't this film's central character. The guy Burton is counting on to carry us into the movie is a dud.
Whatever trouble this story and some of these breathing characters may have finding chemistry with the audience, there's no denying the movie's gorgeous ocular appeal. Stop-motion isn't just some outmoded special effects technique. Done right it's an absolute artistic buffet. Even in Corpse Bride's dullest moments, it’s a spectacular mix of shadows, shapes, and stylized form. The movie's artistic director Nelson Lowry is listed first in the closing credits with good reason. What the film lacks in story-driven charisma it makes up for in stunning artistic skill.
That's not to say that the story doesn’t have its moments. The Corpse Bride's background is potentially moving, but coming in at only 75 minutes the movie doesn't really have a lot of time to waste developing it. After all, there's all those terrible musical numbers to fit in.
I'm not sure what happened after Chicago, but Hollywood has since lost the ability to produce a decent song for a musical. Corpse Bride has a sweet little, hot-jazz skeleton number, but the rest of the songs play like they were written after a night of binge drinking by Nathan Lane. They lyrics are all painfully obvious and Danny Elfman's score (whenever the skeletons aren't jamming) is just as listless.
Maybe it's unfair to keep comparing this movie to an instant classic like The Nightmare Before Christmas, but it's hard not to keep going back to it. It's the gold standard for this sort of thing, and with it Burton has already proven he should know what he's doing. Visually Corpse Bride has no problem achieving similar heights, it simply doesn't have the same sort of character sparkle. It lacks the wit, the humor, the consistently explosive, surprising life of Nightmare and instead settles for something well… too often mediocre. I guess lightning doesn't strike twice. This isn't an instant classic, and there are missed opportunities for greatness in Corpse Bride, but it's still worth recommending as a stylistically special piece of film.