Burton finds life in land of the dead

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Burton finds life in land of the dead

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Tim Burton’s “A Nightmare Before Christmas” influenced a generation of artists. Its dark humor and spindly figures updated and Americanized Edward Gorey’s archetypes of Victorian gloom, and brought them to a mainstream audience.
Now, 12 years after the Pumpkin King pranced before the full moon, Burton’s second stop-motion drama, “Corpse Bride,” proves as seductive as its predecessor.
In the new film, Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp), the son of a fishmonger, is set to marry Victoria (Emily Watson), the daughter of a noble family that has fallen on hard times. Practicing his vows in the forest behind the church, Victor accidentally concludes them by putting the ring on the dead, bony finger of the Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter), a woman who died mysteriously on her wedding day. Mistaking his intentions, she takes Victor back with her to the land of the dead as her husband.
The film’s most interesting conceit is how the fantastic, action-packed land of the dead contrasts with a melancholy, gray living world stuck in eternal twilight. Death appears to free Burton’s characters (with the exception of the title cadaver) from the banal and suffocating considerations of life.
Unlike “Nightmare Before Christmas,” which was based on Burton’s story and drawings but directed by Henry Selick, the seasoned animator who went on to direct “James and the Giant Peach,” Burton himself directs “Corpse Bride.” The result is a more subdued, less cartoony film. More of the evocative moments implied by Burton’s sketch work are also present. Fans may miss the relentless action of “Nightmare,” but this new approach has its merits.
For one thing, the slower pace allows a fuller range of emotions. This was made possible partly by sophisticated technology. “Corpse Bride” uses dolls with an interior structure that can be finely manipulated. This precision of movement rivals the virtual puppetry that Pixar has perfected ― these must be the most emotionally expressive stop motion characters ever filmed.
Of course, like any technical innovation, it would mean nothing unless backed by genuine human efforts. Thankfully, the Burton brain trust comes through yet again. Often, live action stars playing animated characters do more to distract than to contribute, but Depp manages to avoid this problem. Carter, too, brings a wide range of expression to her character.
Rather than take his cue from the spectacularly overproduced scores of Disney’s latter years, Danny Elfman matches the film’s visual dichotomy with a unique score that varies from Victorian earthiness, heavy on the harpsichord, to bounding brass in the land of the dead and ethereal love themes.
The songs support the characters rather than drown them out. In one key scene, Victor and the Corpse Bride play a piano duet, in what is an especially lovely marriage of meticulous animation and musical minimalism.
“Corpse Bride,” imaginative and unusual, shows a group of collaborators at the peak of their powers. It may not prove as revolutionary as its forerunner, but it’s a heartfelt story told with a poet’s touch.


by Ben Applegate

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