Any Hot Topic buyer worth her salt knows that Tim Burton's Corpse Bride is a calculated attempt to more immediately replicate the cash-cow status it took The Nightmare Before Christmas a decade to achieve. Though director Henry Selick has been traded out for relative newcomer Mike Johnson, the stop-motion rendering of Burton's Gorey-esque visualizations is so similar it's, well, scary. Another spindly-limbed protagonist undergoes an existential crisis involving another mournful leading lady who keeps losing parts of her anatomy; meanwhile, a supporting cast of the undead cavorts to the tune of some hoodoo jams by Danny Elfman.
Even a skillful Nightmare knockoff would have some inherent usefulness, but Corpse Bride doesn't just pander to its built-in audience: It vindicates their every mascara-smeared predilection. Sweet-tempered beneath its morbid playfulness, the movie uses the charm of its Halloween-store art direction to advance a message that, pulse or no, we all need to do the right thing.
Not that "the right thing" is always so easy to identify. Mixed emotions swirl around the marriage of convenience planned for Victor Van Dort (voice of Johnny Depp), the No. 1 son of a nouveau riche British family, and Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), whose outwardly well-to-do clan has fallen on hard times. Victor is far from enthusiastic about the arranged pairing witness his fumbling, tentative performance at the wedding rehearsal but he's empathetic (and malleable) enough to give it a go. While trying to memorize his vows by moonlight, he unwittingly calls upon the Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter), a murdered young woman who's spent an indeterminate amount of time waiting for romantic redemption. As far as she's concerned, Victor has now pledged his troth to her which just might put him in the doghouse with Victoria.
The bizarre love triangle that emerges reveals the Bride as the ultimate Goth heroine: beautiful and doomed, but with a sense of justice to her romantic yearning that makes her more special indeed than other girls. (Plus, the average living doll doesn't have a wisecracking maggot living behind her loosened right eye.) When Victor joins the Bride in the land of the dead he's just visiting, at least for now we're introduced to a host of skeletal characters whose methods of expiration are recapped in a succession of macabre sight gags. Thematically and tonally, it's like a trip through Disney's Haunted Mansion, and it makes one wonder what splendor might have ensued had the Mouse House followed its rumored impulse of deep-sixing the Eddie Murphy Mansion movie in its preproduction stage and instead enlisting the Nightmare crew to generate a stop-motion version.
Like all well-intended fright flicks especially the similarly themed The Bride of Frankenstein Corpse Bride knows that horrible people can be just as fascinating as actual monsters. I couldn't take my eyes off Victoria's hilariously antisocial father, Finnis Everglot (Albert Finney), a glaring grump with an impossibly squat, toad-like body that's a wicked sendup of the look that 75 percent of all Englishmen inherit sometime after age 40.
The character modeling is straight out of a Rankin-Bass holiday special, and so, unfortunately, is the narrative density. Already short at 75 minutes, the movie could barely fulfill the story requirements of a half-hour network slot (including time for Dolly Madison snack commercials). It's not plotting but wit and affection that carry Corpse Bride through, culminating in a suggestion that us mirror-fogging types need to reconcile our own mortality by (literally) embracing the phantoms who walk among us. Victor even gets to be reunited with the bones of his long-dead dog, which reconfigure themselves at the mere sight of him and go through the rest of the film trailing happily and yappily after their master. (The dog, by the way, is named Scraps.) Like much of Corpse Bride, that perversely heartwarming scenario of undimmable devotion contradicts the idea that horror devotees are somehow enamored of death. If we didn't love life to its fullest, why would we find it so all-fired difficult to let go of the thing?