The Oscar for this year’s Best Animated Feature Film belongs right here, even though the ravishing goth romance that Tim Burton has conjured up in Corpse Bride isn’t strictly animated in the computer-generated sense. Burton and his co-director, Mike Johnson, use the stop-motion technique, which means taking puppets — about a foot tall — and painstakingly moving them half a millimeter at a time to achieve a subtlety of expression beyond the range of CGI. It takes a twelve-hour work day to produce even a second or two of usable footage. Burton used stop-motion in 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, but the digital improvements at his disposal now really make it sing.
It took the sweat of multitudes to make Corpse Bride, which wouldn’t matter a damn if it lacked inspiration. It doesn’t. Guided by a Russian folk tale about a murdered bride’s love for a man who happens to be a live one, Burton roughed out a few sketches and gave character designer Carlos Grangel free rein. Screenwriters John August, Caroline Thompson and Pamela Pettler updated the story to Victorian England, and a gifted cast signed on to do the voices.
Heading the list is Burton regular Johnny Depp, who brings a touching tenderness to Victor Van Dort, a timid soul on his way to being a forty-year-old virgin until his parents (Tracey Ullman and Paul Whitehouse) arrange to marry him off to shy Victoria (Emily Watson), the daughter of the titled but penniless Everglots (Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney). Victor is so nervous at the wedding rehearsal that the pastor (Christopher Lee) asks him to leave until he learns his vows.
Big mistake. In the forest, Victor practices by putting a ring on a tree that turns into a dead woman in a wedding gown who quickly accepts his proposal. What’s Victor to do? He was getting to like Victoria, but Corpse Bride, voiced with sweet, witty mischief by Helena Bonham Carter (Burton’s offscreen love), is the sexiest piece of rotting flesh ever.
It’s in the Land of the Dead that the film hits its stride. The visuals are amazing. And if younger audiences freak out when a green maggot crawls out of the Bride’s eye socket, screw ’em. Says the maggot to the Corpse Bride, “If I hadn’t just been sitting there, I would have thought you’d lost your mind.”
You get the picture — it’s warped and wonderfully effervescent. Ditto the songs by Danny Elfman, who sings the role of Bonejangles, the frontman for a skeleton jazz band at a swinging underworld club.
Best of all is the love story. Victor is attracted to both women. In the guise of a family film, Burton evokes a darkly erotic obsession that recalls Edgar Allan Poe and Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It would be a test for any filmmaker, and Burton aces it.