In spite of his heady aspirations to create a twisted new fairy-tale, Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride” would be DOA if it weren’t for the miracle of claymation. That’s not to say that the film is unwatchable — as with all Burton films, there is a wealth of imaginative visual touches to keep boredom from setting in. With only a few exceptions, Burton can’t seem to tell a story that doesn’t peter out halfway through; here the story can barely sustain itself for the film’s mere hour and 16 minutes of running time.
And yet at first everything seems set for a rollicking show. Burton finally goes truly Gothic — his natural inclination has always been towards the dark and the ornamental — staging “Corpse Bride” in a 19th-century European village surrounded by a dark forest. Danny Elfman, Burton’s right-hand composer, reprises his role from Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas” as songwriter, promising his signature off-kilter music. Johnny Depp, Burton’s thousand-faced acting child, voices the lead.
The beginning is deliciously simple: Nouveau-riche William and Nell Van Dort have arranged a marriage for their son into the penniless, yet blue-blood, Everglot dynasty. Both families have something to gain from the marriage, prestige on one hand and money on the other. Young Victor Van Dort (Depp) and Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), the teenaged betrothed, are expected to treat the whole thing as the loveless transaction it is. Awkward, stifled and inexperienced, both are unsure of what marriage is supposed to mean. Luckily, they hit the jackpot: They meet and fall in love.
But Victor can’t get his vows straight at the rehearsal, so he heads off into the woods to practice. Under a gnarled oak tree he rehearses them one time too many, accidentally resurrecting a deceased bride (Helena Bonham Carter) who whisks him off the underworld.
In this incredible sequence, Depp struggles to run from the bewitching corpse. When she wraps her arms around him in an eerie 360-degree kiss, “Corpse Bride” reaches its glorious apex. To bad it happens 20 minutes into the film.
Everything that follows is barely worth repeating. Suffice it to say, “Corpse” takes a fine-tuned promise of a plot and falls flat.
The film transitions to an all-out comedy, leaving its emotional weight in the graveyard. Out of any new ideas, it unravels in predictable satiric fashion, settling for melodramatic humor over substance. Burton hams it up with shameless one-note vaudevillian gimmicks that are sorely out of place. It is generous to say that they hit the funny bone half the time.
The second half of the film travels to the land of the dead, a place that really ought to have had some of the mystery and horror of the film’s opening. Instead it comes off as a slightly more-polished version of the underworld in the Brendon Fraser/Chris Kattan clunker “Monkeybone.”
Unlike the spidery, wrought-iron town above, this city of the dead is devoid of any beauty or character. Generic coffin piles seem to be all “Corpse” can manage; it’s enough to make Poe turn in his grave.
The musical numbers suffer a similar fate. Elfman’s bizarre originality is nowhere to be heard; the repetitive songs register as little more than rhyming dialogue.
So it’s up to the visuals to save the day — and they almost manage it. Nearly every shot in Victor’s hometown is a feast for the eyes. Characters move and act with the complexity of flesh and blood; chests heave and breasts jiggle in a comic facsimile of reality. It is a rare pleasure to watch an art studio at the top of its game, doing their specialized craft so well.
When the story is also going strong — in the film’s opening moments — “Corpse Bride” is a wonder to behold. Echoes of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” emerge, creating a common mythology that seems to govern both worlds. Characters and faces repeat themselves as if both films were plays in the repertoire of an ensemble theatre troop. Here the town crier, for example, swings a bell that will be familiar to anyone who has seen the Halloween Town mayor.
Like Jack Skellington before him, Victor’s adventure begins with a pensive walk into the woods. Burton, as storyteller and filmmaker, channels the walled-in world of the isolated city-states, where any trip outside was a voyage into undiscovered, dangerous territory. It’s typical of his grim but wondrous vision that both Jack and Victor must pass through graveyards before beginning their adventures.
“Corpse Bride” derives its energy from the mystery of what lies beneath those tombstones, from the promise of something strange and sensational, something not altogether safe. It’s a shame, for both director and audience, that the promise isn’t fulfilled.