Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp), the son of nouveau-riche fish merchants, is engaged to wed Victoria (Emily Watson), the daughter of the blueblood-but-bankrupt Everglot clan, in an arrangement intended to raise the class and title of the former’s family up to the level of the latter’s. In spite of his parents’ ambitions, however, as well as a genuine attraction to his betrothed, Victor’s apprehension in the face of lifelong commitment proves so overwhelming that the wedding seems an imminent disaster. Left to rehearse his quivering vows in a nearby forest, Victor finds his troubles compounded when he unwittingly proposes to the film’s namesake, the corpse of a young woman (Helena Bonham Carter) tragically murdered by her lover and whose cadaverous arm protrudes among the dead wood.
Fresh off his lead role in Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the versatile Depp stars as the lanky, unassuming Victor and continues a fairly recent trend in American animation whereby cartoon characters are increasingly voiced by Hollywood heavyweights. Depp is joined by Watson as well as Carter, whose role as the Corpse Bride seems especially appropriate in light of her longstanding romantic involvement with the director. While the film’s starring trio is admirably capable, “Corpse Bride” benefits especially from the secondary contribution of such talents as Christopher Lee, whom Tolkien fans may recognize as Peter Jackson’s Saruman, voicing the delightfully gruff Pastor Galswells.
Like “Nightmare,” “Corpse Bride” ultimately tells of a love more misunderstood than morbid. With two women pining for his affection, Victor must choose between his devotion to Victoria and his empathy for the Corpse Bride. Though this conflict should seem the stuff of an enchanting tale, Burton’s storytelling lags far behind his more aesthetic talents. The film speeds so quickly to its conclusion that our protagonist’s choice of one bride over another seems arbitrary and less than compelling. Also, “Corpse Bride” has no character half as charismatic as “Nightmare’s” Jack Skellington, and the film’s would-be villain plays so negligible a role that he seems an afterthought. In such past works as “Big Fish,” Burton has exhibited a tendency to overemphasize cinematography to the detriment of narrative; in this regard, “Corpse Bride” is no different.
Another shortcoming of the film is its music. Whereas “Nightmare” benefited greatly from a wealth of infectious song-and-dance numbers, returning composer Danny Elfman (who makes a cameo in the film as the skeletal, scat-singing Bonejangles) fails to reproduce his success in “Corpse Bride,” which lacks even one truly memorable tune.
In spite of these flaws, Burton’s darkly elegant animation may be worth the price of admission alone. The film is rife with his trademark motifs. Victor’s figure is skeletal, his pallor stark in reflection of his timidity; Finnis Everglot’s mouth seems to literally flap open and shut in disapproval. Burton creates a stylish Victorian backdrop entirely in muted shades of blue and gray which seem both appropriately somber and effortlessly lovely. Conversely, the film’s underworld assumes warm, lively tones befitting a more vivacious town. “People are dying to get down here!” muses one skeleton. In light of the ubiquity of such CGI-driven success stories as “The Incredibles” and “Shrek,” Burton’s style is especially endearing as perhaps the last form of commercially viable American animation not produced entirely by computers.
To be sure, Burton’s macabre spunk is sure to crack a few smiles. The film revels in Burton’s morbid humor; the Corpse Bride, for example, regularly attends the advice of an amiable maggot which resides in her skull. However, it would be overly generous to suggest that the film’s pleasantly quirky moments could outweigh its more numerous disappointments. Ultimately, though it is far from boring, one cannot evade a tremendous sense of unfulfilled potential. An animation marvel though it is, “Corpse Bride” is no “Nightmare.”