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Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

There's a surprisingly somber bit of history behind Tim Burton's lovely, darkly funny animated feature Corpse Bride (2005). In Russia during the 19th century, when anti-Semitism was widespread in eastern Europe, bands of thugs would sometimes attack Jewish wedding parties as they traveled on the roads. Because the bride would be the one to bear future generations of Jews, she would be pulled from the wedding carriage, murdered, and then buried in her wedding gown. A Russian folk tale inspired by this horrible practice inspired Burton — never one to shy away from morbid material — to create a fun, adult, and deliciously eerie tale all his own. Sensitive Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp), is apprehensive about his impending marriage to Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), arranged by his rich, socially ambitious parents (Tracey Ullman and Paul Whitehouse) and Victoria's cash-poor but aristocratic Mum and Dad (Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney). Surprisingly though, he finds Victoria to be lovely, and a kindred spirit to boot — she also feels oppressed by the dull, gray spiritless existence offered in their stultifyingly dull village. But as he's rehearsing his vows in a nearby graveyard, Victor places his wedding ring on what he believes to be a dry twig — but which is actually the skeleton of Emily (Helena Bonham Carter), who was murdered on the eve of her wedding and has been waiting for her groom to return.

Burton's take on this particular tale is as sensitive as it is macabre, with the mistakenly married Victor accompanying Emily to the Land of the Dead, which is a far livelier place than that of the living with bright colors and dancing skeletons. He's even reunited with his dead dog, Scraps, who's now a tad bonier than Victor remembers but still quite frisky. Above ground, though, there's a rival for Victoria's affections (and money) — smarmy Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant) is determined to marry Victoria, who's heartbroken that Victor has married a dead, if still quite attractive, woman when he was already betrothed to her. Burton's story (scripted by his Big Fish screenwriter John August) is graceful, droll, and sympathetic. Yes, Victor's married to the wrong girl, and one suffering from advanced decomposition, but she's really very nice, even if she does have a worm in her head that sounds like Peter Lorre when he talks. The stunning, stylized stop-motion animation is jaw-dropping, in part for Burton's typically gorgeous Edward Gorey-esque design, but also for the sheer amount of technical expertise involved — the characters' faces have real complexity of expression, and even the smallest details are perfect. The cast of actors providing voices — notably Finney, Bonham Carter, Lumley, Ullman, Depp, and Christopher Lee as a nasty cleric — are simply superb, and the story is impressively mature as it addresses issues of personal responsibility, social order, and sacrifice. And it's very funny, in that macabre Tim Burton fashion. It's certainly not Burton's best work, with entertaining but very forgettable songs by Danny Elfman, and at 77 minutes it feels more like an extended short than a true feature title. It also may be a bit too adult and intense for small children. But those are minor points — Corpse Bride is perfectly delightful, genuinely touching, and a marvelous achievement in animated art.

Warner Home Video's DVD release of Tim Burton's Corpse Bride is first-rate, offering a flawless, high-contrast anamorphic transfer (1.85:1). The early scenes in the Land of the Living are suitably glum, while the wild, candy-colored Land of the Dead pops off the screen — this is really an exceptionally good presentation. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is superb, showcasing Elfman's score (which is available on a music-only track) and in every way the equal of the disc's video quality. A number of short behind-the scenes featurettes illustrate the various facts of production — "Inside the Two Worlds of Corpse Bride" discusses the difference between the film's Land of the Living and Land of the Dead while the puppet-makers detail the character designs (4 min.); "Danny Elfman Interprets the Two Worlds" looks at the creation of the songs and the scoring of the film (5 min.); "The Animators: The Breath of Life" addresses the painstaking process of stop-motion animation (6 min.); "Tim Burton, Dark vs. Light" examines Burton's unique vision (3 min.); "Voices from the Underworld" looks at the amazing cast Burton assembled for the voice work (6 min.); and "Making Puppets Tick" is a fascinating — and far too short — look at the process of building the exquisitely detailed puppets themselves (6 min.) . Also on board is a "Voices Behind the Voice" feature allowing viewers to watch footage of the actors simultaneously with selected scenes from the film (7 min.), a gallery of pre-production animation tests and storyboard-to-screen comparisons, the "music-only" track, and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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