If the animators behind Tim Burton’s love letters to Ray Harryhausen put as much effort into the story they’re telling as they put into the ten-inch stick figures that tell it, they would truly be dangerous. His first stop-motion foray, 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” was charming but flawed, too impressed with its technical achievement for its own good. The same affliction mars “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride” as well; it’s visually stunning, leaps and bounds beyond both “Nightmare” and 1995’s “James and the Giant Peach.” The story, however, is seriously lacking, and the tunes aren’t that good, either.
Johnny Depp stars as Victor Van Dort, the son of two new-money fishing magnates who have arranged for Victor to marry Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), the daughter of old-money royalty whose family is in fact dead broke. Victor is smitten with her when he finally sees her, but is utterly terrified when having to rehearse his vows and screws them up repeatedly. Walking through the woods after his embarrassing ordeal, Victor is determined to get the vows right when it counts, and rehearses to the trees, even placing the ring on a branch on the ground. He soon realizes, though, that the branch is not a branch but the bony, dead finger of Emily (Helena Bonham Carter), a lovely girl who was murdered on her wedding day and swore that someday she would be a blushing bride (buried in her wedding dress and everything). Emily takes Victor “underground,” where she and all of her dead friends live, thinking they will “live” happily ever after, but is none too pleased to learn of this other living woman that’s complicating things.
Tremendous potential abounds here. There’s a living fiancé and a dead wife. You have journeys between this world and the land of the dead. You have scheming parents (Emily’s, voiced by Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney) forsaking their daughter’s happiness in exchange for money. You have the family thinking Victoria’s nuts when she sees a dead girl claiming to be Victor’s wife. You have a worm that lives in Emily’s head that looks and sounds like Peter Lorre. Lastly, you have a man who wants to experience love on his own terms, but instead has to deal with it in the most unlikely terms imaginable. They had the makings of something both deeply moving and tragic.
Had the filmmakers put as much effort into storytelling as they did in the animation, that is. The conversations suffer from the age-old joke about movie dialogue, where if any complications could easily be cleared up with one simple sentence, then for God’s sake don’t say it. Also, Victor makes a decision with regard to one of his betrothed that’s more convenient than plausible, and the manner in which they deal with a meddling suitor of Emily is mighty convenient as well. For as many concepts as they brought to the table, no one seemed terribly worried about making the concepts work together. Even Danny Elfman’s songs (there are only a few of them) are half-baked compared to his work in “Nightmare.” A shame, especially when considering that Burton assembled a staggering list of voice talent to bring it all to life, a veritable who’s who of Burtondom that includes not just Depp, Bonham Carter and Finney but Christopher Lee, Tracy Ullman, Michael Gough (Alfred from the “Batman” movies), Jane Horrocks and Richard E. Grant. What the moviemakers working in cutting edge technology must remember is that audiences will be perfectly happy with a movie that doesn’t look spotless as long as it means something. There’s enough empty-headed nonsense out there already, and “Corpse Bride,” sadly, only contributes to the clutter. A golden opportunity, missed.(3 / 5)