Tim Burton's new stop-motion animated film, Corpse Bride (which opens Friday, Sept. 23, at the Neptune and other theaters), is said to spring from a 19th-century Russian folktale that was in turn inspired by one of history's ugliest chapters: the murder of Jewish brides by anti-Semitic mobs who buried the women in their wedding dresses. In one version of the tale, a bridegroom walking through a forest before his wedding sees a fingerlike stick coming out of the ground, puts his wedding ring on it, does the wedding dance around it as a joke, and laughs his ass off. Whereupon the stick pulls a Carrie on him, pops out of the dirt, and proves to be a wormy dead woman in A Rose for Emily–ish rotted regalia. She grabs his hand and demands her marital propers. The rabbis tell the man the ceremony sounds valid.
Burton's movie backs miles away from the horrors that inspired it. The creepy, threatening old moral was: Don't mischievously mess with tradition, young man! Respect your elders, especially if they're dead. The moral of the perky new Corpse Bride, like so much of the parent-loathing Burton's work, is: Defy wicked authority, for only alienated youth is good. Johnny Depp voices the young hero, Victor, oppressed by his cold parvenu folks (Tracey Ullman and Paul Whitehead) in the black-and-white wasteland of Victorian England. To social climb, they selfishly conspire with a still viler, land-poor upper- crust couple (Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney) to marry off Victor to their saintly daughter Victoria (Emily Watson).
Victor puts the ring on the corpse's finger innocently, not mockingly. He's just rehearsing his complicated vows. The Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter) claims him, but in a nice way—she doesn't get that he's horrified as she drags him to the underworld. It's more fun and colorful, populated by frolicsome joie de morte corpses inspired by Day of the Dead figurines (and, I darkly suspect, Depp's undead co-stars in Pirates of the Caribbean). The wise old dead sage (Michael Gough) who advises Victor isn't scarily hortatory like the rabbis in the folktale, but kindly, harmless, almost pointless.
Burton owns the world's record for making the macabre cute and funny yet still bracingly scary, and the film abundantly echoes his greatest hits. Victor's reanimated dead dog, Scraps, could have leaped right out of Burton's first important mini-film, Frankenweenie. In technical terms, Corpse Bride is a big advance on The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, the stop-motion movies he produced with co-director Henry Selick. The startling crow's-eye camera angles and elaborate shots are truly, smoothly cinematic (though the lips on Victoria's lifelike mouth still can't quite convincingly meet to enunciate certain words). The piano Victor plays is labeled "Harryhausen," a tribute to the great and still- living animator auteur of Jason and the Argonauts, who visited the Corpse set, and the film's many dueling skeletons march in the footsteps of Ray Harryhausen's bony brigades.
So why am I so disappointed? Because Corpse Bride continues Burton's disturbing 11-year losing streak, a string of so-so to oh-no! flicks that suggest his imagination is dwindling and repeating itself— decomposing like the Bride in her grave. Fans marvel that (with co-director Mike Johnson) he could make Corpse Bride at the same time as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and that Depp could create both roles. But both pale compared with what went before, and both blah Depp roles are uneminent Victorians.
There's very little of Depp visible in generic Victor, and it's tough to discern much of anybody else's persona in any of the other characters, either. You can sort of hear Lumley's gutteral grumble, but her mean-mama character is a one-note bore. Watson and Bonham Carter could have switched roles and nobody would know. The dialogue is drab, leaning to death puns and labored groaners. Enn Reitel, voicing the maggot that lives in the Corpse Bride's skull and sproings springlike out of her eye from time to time, sounds like the worst comic you ever heard doing his Peter Lorre impression and saying things like, "If I hadn't just been sitting there, I would have thought you'd lost your mind," and, "I'll keep an eye out for you," and, "You don't know me, but I used to live in your dead mother." It's not offensive, but it's not amusing.
For all the visual precision of the film, everything else about it is vague and poorly organized. The maggot is proposed as a Jiminy Cricket type, but he has no moral point of view, since the movie doesn't have one. The Corpse Bride isn't that much less pretty than Victor's noncorpse fiancée, and she lacks uncanniness. It's a love triangle with no anger, no passion, and less jealousy than a three-way at Hef's place. Everyone is kind of like those feeble ghosts in Casper the Friendly Ghost who go boo and then smarmily reassure you that they don't mean it. Victor's motives toward both girls are murky. When the dead invade what they call "Upstairs"—the world of the living—for a wedding, there is no fear and no story structure to support them. Pirates of the Caribbean's ingenious plot logic could've shown them a better way. The many musical sequences by Danny Elfman are his worst work—tuneless, the lyrics bereft of cleverness.
Maybe I'm being too hard on Corpse Bride. It doesn't stink. It's forgettably watchable. The movie makes me shiver to think that Burton isn't an immortal talent anymore. And it's just not very animated.