Some days, you just can't catch a break. Poor Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp), a nervous soon-to-be-bridegroom, practices his wedding vows in a dark forest. He slips the ring onto what looks like the branch of a dead tree — and suddenly the ground begins to crack, and a wide-eyed ghoul named Emily (Helena Bonham Carter) in a tattered wedding gown is standing next to him, gazing dreamily at his ring on her finger. She's pale as death — for good reason — and she's now his new bride. Oops.
Yes, we're in Tim Burton territory here, and a stop-motion animation musical, at that. With that trademark Burton blend of wistful sweetness and Edward Gorey-ish Goth macabre, "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" — co-directed by Burton and Mike Johnson — is an often dazzling trip down a very dark rabbit hole. It's made by a gang of frequent Burton collaborators: screenwriters John August ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Big Fish") and Caroline Thompson ("Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Edward Scissorhands"), along with Depp, Bonham Carter, Albert Finney and Christopher Lee. And it never sounds a wrong note: Victor's bad luck turns out to be our good fortune.
The movie presents two distinct worlds, both topsy-turvy. The bustling, vaguely European-looking town of the living, where Victor's social-climbing parents have schemed for him to marry a timid heiress (Emily Watson) is done in grays, indigos and mauves, like a Victorian mourning wardrobe. And the underworld, where the corpses frolic in a dead-persons' bar (there's even a headwaiter who's just a head), is done in delicate jewel tones; much prettier than the chilly world above.
Burton previously explored stop-motion animation in "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (directed by Henry Selick), and the new film shares many similarities with the 1993 tale of Christmas Town. ("Corpse Bride" also includes a tribute to stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen: the piano played by Victor's intended bride is not a Steinway, but a Harryhausen.) The human characters have impossibly skinny, spidery limbs, giving them all a spindly grace. They glide like ice skaters through the fanciful sets, blinking their big eyes at this strange world.
The gruesome story is leavened by much humor, some of which wouldn't be out of place in an old-time vaudeville show. A spider, approaching Victor, murmurs, "I'm a widow." In the underworld, a corpse notes Victor's presence and shouts, "He's a breather!" "Does he have a dead brother?" wonders another, while another gives new meaning to the term "jaw-dropping." (You wait for someone to observe that Emily has kept her ghoulish figure nicely.) And the handful of songs, by Danny Elfman, likewise sparkle.
But what makes "Corpse Bride" sing, ultimately, is the breadth of imagination that it demonstrates; creating a cluttered, textured and mysteriously beautiful world that we're loathe to leave at the end. Watch a scene in which Emily's bridal veil becomes a flock of lacy white butterflies, swirling around her head before flying away into the gray sky, and it just might take your breath away. Never mind the talking maggots; this "Bride" is a beauty.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org