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Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

(2005) *** Pg
77 min. Warner Brothers. Directors: Mike Johnson, Tim Burton. Cast: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Joanna Lumley, Albert Finney.

No one familiar with the work of Tim Burton will be much surprised by Corpse Bride, but children encountering his morbid world for the first time will find either a new home or hell in its off-kilter sensibility. Only Burton could make possible a stop-motion-animation children's movie about a hero who accidentally marries a corpse and considers killing himself to join her in eternity.

Johnny Depp, Emily Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Gough, and Christopher Lee, among others, provide the voices for the original characters created by Burton and Carlos Grangel (John August's screenplay is "based on a Russian folktale"). Many more of Burton's regular collaborators contribute, including production designer Alex McDowell and composer Danny Elfman, who pens score and light-opera songs, a jazzy tune and a ballad ("I know that I'm dead/But it seems that I still have some tears to shed").

Customarily, Burton struggles with story, and the narrative gait of Corpse Bride moves to an awkward beat. Burton is detail-oriented, a design man, and Corpse Bride has the stitched-together appeal of Frankenstein's monster: a dead dog named "Scraps," a skeletal jazz singer named Bojangles, and a maggot with a striking visual and vocal resemblance to Peter Lorre. Given the otherworldly culture clash (including a disrupted dinner party), Burton's Beetlejuice comes to mind.

Burton and co-director Mike Johnson keep the mood improbably buoyant, recalling the macabre wit and visual panache of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey. The animation is first-rate, arguably improving upon Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (directed by Henry Selick). Modern photography techniques have effectively closed the gap between stop-motion and CGI, which ironically begs the question "Why go to all the trouble of stop-motion?" (one hopes genuine lighting contours on physical objects will never be fully supplanted).

Pre-wedding jitters provide August with good comic fodder, with the life-and-death anxiety of Victor Van Dort (Depp) ratcheted up by the appearance of the blue-skinned Corpse Bride (Carter). Kids will watch best-laid plans go pointedly awry, but also absorb the characters' attention to strange beauty (in one poignant scene, the Bride basks in moonlight). The earthly milieu is obsessed by class issues and repressive for women and emotions, making it easier for Burton to paint death as a (literally) more colorful plane of existence than life, the ultimate subversive joke in a movie full of them.

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