The long-awaited sequel to Beetlejuice does not disappoint. The old Tim Burton has returned - who knows how briefly - to re-hash his idea of the netherworld as a calypso club, and to continue lobbying for his pet cause, the right of the living to marry cadavers. In Beetlejuice, the corpse was seeking a breathing bride to transport him out of the land of the dead. In Corpse Bride, the afterlife is now the hottest ticket in town. The assorted ghouls mambo past the bone xylophones, perform skeleton skat, and only pause the bacchanal long enough to snicker at the saps who still insist on staying above ground. You half-expect Winona Ryder to levitate up into the frame, to jump in the line and rock her body in time.
Johnny Depp lends his voice to Victor, who is being matched up with an upper-class young woman named Victoria. Shaken by pre-wedding jitters, Victor runs off to the woods and repeats his wedding vows aloud, to memorize them. The corpse bride, a buried, decomposing body with zombie-juice-blue flesh and Angelina Jolie's lips, mistakenly takes this as a cue that her betrothed has come to spend eternal death with her. She erupts out of the earth (just like Beetlejuice) and demands a ring. Everything then moves quickly - the film is a brief 80 minutes or so - as the characters conga back and forth between the land of the living and the dead, solve a "murder most foul" and untangle a love triangle. (They never touch on the issue of physical congress between living and dead; I imagine it would require lots of lubrication)
The script was whittled out of an old Russian folk tale that infuses it with a Slavic, in-love-with-the-bitter-earth timber. It's an elemental story, but Burton is a master at creating cracks and fissures at the subconscious level in order to keep the audience on the back-foot, and to let them smell weirdness wafting in from blind alleyways. One of his tricks in this film is to shuffle the elements of story foundation and re-insert them, Frankenstein-style. For example, why do these modern-sounding English characters uphold the tradition of arranged marriage, complete with dowry? And if the corpse bride is settled in the afterlife, which she is, why is she a wormy corpse and not a ghost?
It's all very "Tim Burton-ish." For a non-writer/director, Burton has managed to maintain more brand identity over the course of his career than any three filmmakers put together. His typical process is to invade a host screenplay and flood it with his peculiar melancholia until it warps and buckles to his liking. Like a shuddersome, black-spectacled Tarantino, he borrows liberally from his previous works and from anywhere else he likes. Check out the name-dropping in this film: The worm who lives in the corpse bride's brain has the voice of Peter Lorre. The ghouls include Napoleon 'Bones-apart' and what I believe were the remains of a Kaiser-helmeted Erich von Stroheim.
The ordeal of creating Corpse Bride's complicated puppetry was so involved that it's all been copyright protected and can't be discussed at length. Years of painstaking work went into creating high-tech, silicone-laced armatures to embody the film's characters and give them free movement. In the land of the living, everyone has faces of polished, monochrome bone and exaggerated pencil-point pupils to convey easy fright, yet they move fluidly. When you look at the corpse bride on-screen you're seeing a real puppet that's moving via a complex system of state-of-the-art micro-motors, as opposed to a from-scrap CGI image rendered up in a computer. One of the film's visual artists was recently asked how he would describe the process of creating the life-like eye movements for the puppets, to which he replied "extremely expensive."
But no one can deny the money is on the screen. There's a moment in the film when the corpse bride walks out into the stark moonlight and the elements congeal, with the stop-motion animation, digital shoe polish and careful lensing all bleeding together into an arresting visual goulash. There's a strange, un-named quality that exists in works like this when they are done right; you're seeing years and years of work all time-lapsed into real-time movement. Something that took a month to create is gone before you can blink. It's so much more fulfilling than a lame reliance on CGI, which so many directors prefer these days.
There are two main complaints about the film: one is Danny Elfman's score, which is uncharacteristically flat and lifeless. We get nothing like the cape-swishing highs of Batman or the lovely, death-affirming funeral sonatas he's capable of. (At my screening, the only clapping for the music occurred when Elfman winked at the audience by dropping in a few actual music cues from Beetlejuice) As for the film's songs, they feel like they were begun as an assignment rather than as inspiration. They exist to provide exposition - there's a wedding song to plug the upcoming wedding, a corpse bride backstory song, and so on.
The other complaint is the under-use of Helena Bonham Carter as the voice of the corpse bride. Almost any actress could have tackled this role, as it requires very little vocal expenditure or flourish. This is a pity, since HBC's voice is one of her biggest assets. She stands barely as tall as a stack of A through M encyclopedias, but she has a booming growl that makes her employable for this kind of work. She was used much better in Planet of the Apes. Small complaints, overall.