By conservative estimate, Tim Burton stands to rake in half a billion dollars at the box office this year, thanks to a childlike chocolate maker in mauve rubber gloves and, now, to a lively dead girl with marriage on her mind and the timid schlub who falls under her spell. As inventive as it is original, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (auteur and work are now inseparable) figures to delight the middle-school set because, on the most basic level, it's a candy-colored Halloween party awash in play-gore and mock-ghastly ghouls. But Burton's multilayered forays into the macabre are never entirely child's play. In just 78 eye-popping minutes, Corpse Bride draws on everything from Jewish myth and Russian folklore to the cartoons of Charles Addams and the German expressionist films of the 1920s. Celebrants of Mexico's Day of the Dead will find some things to like -- Burton readily acknowledges this influence -- as will pale goth fantasists who believe that the nerve-wracked bourgeois world of their growing-up is a far less hospitable place than the heart of darkness in their dreams.
As with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, Burton once again brings out the kid in all of us, but he never fails to touch the inner adult. That probably explains the presence of Johnny Depp, Burton's muse and alter ego, in every Burton production (here he voices the delicate hero-bridegroom, Victor Van Dort). Tough guys like Donnie Brasco aside, Depp embodies the kind of sly, vaguely discomfiting innocence -- one part Michael Jackson, one part con artist -- that's the hallmark of the classic Burton protagonist. Meanwhile, Helena Bonham Carter's vocal portrayal of the dead heroine, an engaging mixture of the tender and the tart, represents another bonus. Burton's off-screen love, Bonham Carter finds herself in quite a different realm here than the impeccably mannered dramas of the Merchant-Ivory canon, and she seems to be thoroughly enjoying herself.
As you've likely heard by now, the tireless director brings this entire bleak comedy to the screen via a painstaking throwback process -- stop-motion puppetry -- that Hollywood's new wave of digitized cartooneers have long since abandoned as tedious and outmoded. Still, the retro craftsman sticks to his guns, and his animation stand, just as he did with 1993's vivid Nightmare Before Christmas. Burton's nothing if not content in the belief that slow is better than fast, visually speaking. Using his brand of stop-motion animation, it takes an army of lab-slaves a full day to produce two or three seconds of usable footage, so it's not likely the Burton method will provoke some kind of technical counter-revolution. For his part, he simply thinks the form is more beautiful, a view not without merit.
The gleefully morbid visual treats on display in Corpse Bride, which advances Nightmare's esthetics, include the bride's rotting face, which has a beauty all its own, and a wiseass green maggot (Enn Reitel) that pops out of the blue-skinned heroine's eye socket and, in a fair approximation of Peter Lorre, announces to its hostess: "If I hadn't just been sitting there, I would have thought you'd lost your mind." Every Burton movie is a kind of hallucinatory funhouse -- recall the teeming miniature village of Beetlejuice or the dancing armies of Oompa-Loompas in Charlie -- and it's become increasingly difficult for Burton and his composer-of-choice, Danny Elfman, to top past production numbers. Here, they manage to do it at least once with the unbridled gyrations of an underworld jazz band composed of swinging skeletons and headed by a dervish named Bonejangles, voiced by Elfman himself. Production designer Alex McDowell, puppet designer Carlos Grangel, co-director Mike Johnson and probably twelve dozen others all deserve credit for the high style and dark wit, but it's Burton who conducts the band with a firm hand.
As usual in Burtonworld, dazzle outdistances plot by light years. Screenwriters John August, Caroline Thompson and Pamela Pettler make their own contributions to this debauched fairy tale, but the bit on which it turns is pretty slim: When Victor's intrusive parents arrange to marry him off to shy Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), he nervously forgets his wedding vows, takes to a forest to practice, and inadvertently proposes to the Corpse Bride, who happily accepts. Then she promptly spirits him off to the Land of the Dead, which is to the repressed Victorian realm of his past as Las Vegas is to Salt Lake City. The ecstatic freaks Victor meets down below include a dead dog with spirit and a squad of spiders who spin him a new suit. From there, the black mischief proceeds without fetter, happily inundated by the Burton whimsy, which is not just great fun but high art.