As an achievement in macabre visual wizardry, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride has to be reckoned some sort of marvel. It’s Burton’s second foray into the nostalgic world of stop-motion animation (he codirected it with Mike Johnson), yet far more than the first, 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride is a ghoulishly witty crackpot puppet show, a sculpted musical dreamscape of kiddie-gothic expressionist design. There are Bob Fosse chorus-line skeletons and mansions of such foreboding shadow and architecture that they make Count Orlock’s look like a well-lit condo. And there’s the Corpse Bride, a beautiful, blue-skinned, truly dead femme fatale with a shapely set of femurs, a nose that’s like Michael Jackson’s unbandaged, a decayed hole in the cheek through which you can glimpse her molars, and an eyeball that pops right out.
Taken as an antidote to the wholesomeness of most animation, Corpse Bride is a welcome dose of toxic fairy-tale derangement. Yet as terrific as the movie is to look at, it’s never exactly involving. Johnny Depp voices Victor Van Dort, a shyly delicate chap with hair like the young Jimmy Stewart’s who has been engaged, sight unseen, to wed the equally winsome Victoria (Emily Watson). She’s the sheltered daughter of the aristocratic Everglots, who have lost all their money and are counting on the marriage as a ticket back into society. Corpse Bride has a story so thin, it’s almost the outline for a story. When the wedding plans falter, Victor, in the woods, finds himself married, almost inadvertently, to the Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter), who lives in a bouncing underworld of happy dead freak spirits. They include the eager remains of a pooch and a team of daddy longlegs who sew Victor a new suit.
We recognize this place as a classically debauched Burton funhouse, but almost everything that happens in Corpse Bride is there to prop up its jumpin’ Halloween parade of visual whimsy, rather than the other way around. Somehow, working with these elegant carved-in-silicone puppets turns Burton’s sense of drama to wood. As a piece of comic shock theater that flirts with being too goth for tots, Corpse Bride has much to recommend it, but I’m still waiting for the day when Burton, in an animated film, gets us to care about what’s making our own eyes pop out.