‘Corpse’ outlives the fun

Times Staff Writer

“Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride” doesn’t really need the first two words in its title. After all, who else’s corpse bride might this be confused with? “Garry Marshall’s Corpse Bride”? “Chris Columbus’ ”? It doesn’t seem likely.

For better and worse, this particular “Corpse Bride” bears the stamp of producer-director-conceptualizer Burton. His trademark “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” mixture of bleak humor and the bizarre make the venture unmistakably Burton’s. That and the director’s understandable passion for the labor-intensive process of stop-motion animation that involves the frame-by-frame manipulation of three-dimensional creatures.

More than a decade ago, Burton conceived and produced his first stop-motion venture, the delightfully ghoulish “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” directed by Henry Selick. This time Burton has co-directed (with stop-motion vet Mike Johnson) and that seems to have tipped the balance, and not in a good way. “Corpse Bride” has more warmth and appeal than its title would indicate, but it is finally more grotesque than good-humored. And, even at 75 minutes, it feels longer than its content can comfortably support.

This is perhaps not surprising, given that Burton says in the press material that the idea for the project came from “a little short story, a couple of paragraphs from an old folk tale” given him by the late Joe Ranft, a fellow animator. It took three writers -- longtime Burton collaborators John August, Caroline Thompson and Pamela Pettler -- to stretch this material to its current length, and the exertion is all too visible.


The idea, which echoes the classic Yiddish narrative of “The Dybbuk,” involves the spirit of a dead person who comes between a betrothed young couple. If they are to marry, they must acknowledge and make their peace with the powerful presence of those who are technically no longer alive.

“Corpse Bride” is set in a uniformly gray 19th century city, beautifully rendered as kind of a cross between London and Prague. It’s peopled by odd-looking, elongated folk who owe their height to the space needed to place an intricate gearing mechanism that controls facial expression inside each and every head.

The story begins with two very different -- but equally repulsive -- sets of parents getting ready for their offspring’s arranged marriage. Aristocrats Finis Everglot (voiced by Albert Finney) and his rutabaga-headed wife Maudeline (Joanna Lumley) are as snobbish as they are penniless. Nell and William Van Dort (Tracey Ullman and Paul Whitehouse) are so crude and nouveau-riche that overweight Nell has trouble fitting into her own carriage.

The Van Dorts’ son Victor (who else but Burton favorite Johnny Depp?) is everything his parents are not: an unworldly aesthete prone to doing the wrong thing and terribly fearful around women. His opposite number, Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), has been savagely suppressed by her parents.


Although the two young people, absolutely the only normal individuals in the film, first meet at the wedding rehearsal, the attraction between them is noticeable. But Victor, still female-phobic, so messes up the vows that the cranky Pastor Galswells (the veteran Christopher Lee) sends him home for more practice.

Wandering in the woods, Victor screws things up even further. Practicing the vows, he places the wedding ring on what he thinks is a dead tree branch only to find it is the hand of Helena Bonham Carter’s bony yet buxom (don’t ask) Corpse Bride, who immediately comes to life and insists that she and Victor are now man and wife. As opposed to the gray city, the land of the dead where she lives turns out to be a full-color place where everyone knows how to have fun.

This scenario is enlivened by Danny Elfman’s energetic music, including four clever songs he wrote. It’s no wonder that Victor, many plot turns later, has trouble deciding whether it would be more worth his while to be living or dead.

While it would be unfair to reveal what Victor ultimately decides, “Corpse Bride’s” world wears out its charm before the final credits roll. Unless you’re one of those people who can’t get enough of skeletons, not to mention really old jokes and a Peter Lorre-sounding maggot who keeps popping out of the corpse bride’s eye socket, you will wish “Corpse Bride” was a short rather than a feature. The film does have a fairy-tale aspect, but, like many of its characters, it is more dead and buried than fully alive.


‘Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride’

MPAA rating: PG for some scary images and action, and brief mild language.

Times guidelines: Lots of grotesque imagery.


Released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Directors Mike Johnson, Tim Burton. Producers Tim Burton, Allison Abbate. Screenplay John August, Caroline Thompson, Pamela Pettler. Cinematographer Peter Kozachik. Editors Jonathan Lucas, Chris Lebenzon. Music Danny Elfman. Production design Alex McDowell. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

In general release.