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Wondrous ‘Corpse Bride’ a dark treat

Tim Burton’s latest will satisfy both adults and kids. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

More than a decade after “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” Tim Burton marries painstaking stop-motion animation with digital technology in “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.” The product of that union is a film that’s wondrous, strange, poignant and beautifully reflective of the director’s distinctive, darkly humorous style.

His fans will be more than satisfied — much of it is visually reminiscent of “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands,” two of his best films — and their children, who may only have been exposed to his work through this year’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” will be dazzled, as well. And at an efficient 74 minutes, the whole family can enjoy it together.

With an all-star voice cast led by Burton regulars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, the film follows the romantic troubles of a shy young man torn between the woman his parents have arranged for him to marry and the woman who rises from the Land of the Dead and accidentally becomes his wife.

(“Corpse Bride” could play on a double bill with another new movie this week, “Just Like Heaven.” Both are about men who find themselves emotionally entangled with women who aren’t exactly alive, but who end up enriched by the experience.)

The living aren’t exactly the most boisterous crowd, though, in Burton’s vision of Victorian repression. It’s all sharp angles and overstuffed bellies, a cold, shadowy world colored in varying shades of gray, like something out of a German expressionist film.

In the midst of this are skittish Victor (Depp) and Victoria (voiced by Emily Watson), who are meeting for the first time the day before their wedding. Victor’s parents (Tracey Ullman and Paul Whitehouse) are nouveau-riche fish tycoons, hoping to elevate their social status by marrying their son to Victoria, whose uptight parents (Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney) are old-school — but bankrupt — aristocrats.

While nervously practicing his vows in a forest, he feels a hand reach up from the ground, take his ring and grab him. Suddenly he finds himself in the Land of the Dead, where a lovely (but deceased) young woman named Emily (Bonham Carter) in full bridal regalia enthusiastically insists that they’re now married. (She’s been waiting eagerly for a husband, ever since she was killed on her wedding day.)

The Land of the Dead, naturally, is far more alive in contrast to the world upstairs. These people know how to party and they do it all night, with free-flowing beer and nonstop music (provided by longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman, who also sings some of his lively original songs as frontman of the all-skeleton band, The Skeletones).

But in an inventive twist, the Land of the Dead isn’t just orange and red and surrounded by flames. It’s bright, colorful and beautiful — stylistically inspired by the Spanish architect Gaudi — and full of surprises. Even creatures that are disgusting in reality are cute and sort of charming here, like the maggot that lives inside the Corpse Bride’s head, pops out of her eye socket and acts as her conscience.

Victor finds he’s taken a liking to his inadvertent betrothed, but he’d also hit it off with sweet Victoria during their brief moments together. The fact that you’d be happy to see him wind up with either of them is a testament to how richly the characters are written (the work of John August, Caroline Thompson and Pamela Pettler, based on a Russian folk tale) and to the vulnerability we’ve come to expect from Depp in any role.

You sort of end up hoping Victor can stay with both women — that perhaps bigamy is legal in the Land of the Dead. To quote a song from Elfman’s band Oingo Boingo, it’s a dead man’s party — who could ask for more?