A Black-Velvet Comedy for Modern Tweens

Tim Burton's success at molding his devotion to old pulp into cooler-than-cool marketing triumph may have peaked with this co-directed (with Mike Johnson) stop-motion ditty, and it may be the retro-auteur's sublimest elegy for lost time next to Ed Wood. A black-velvet comedy for modern tweens that takes the tools and design of The Nightmare Before Christmas several steps further into the storybook abyss, Burton's movie integrates archives of semi-forgotten culture into its glib gothica—The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Charles Addams, the St. James Infirmary blues of the Fleischer brothers, the fossilized legacy of Ray Harryhausen—and does it in 76 sweet minutes. Its puppetry slicked with digital oil, Bride follows a sallow youth (Johnny Depp) as he avoids an arranged marriage and mistakenly practices his vows in the presence of a half-buried skeleton in the woods (Helena Bonham Carter), becoming thus inopportunely wed to a dead woman. The comic melodrama unravels from there in small bites, dubiously abetted by several operetta-ish Danny Elfman musical numbers, but pay attention: Burton and his team of tireless nudges have crafted a humble slice of old-world folklore. Set in a monotonal Mitteleuropa as archly dour and decaying as the underworld is jumpin' with bone bands, pop-eye jokes, and Peter Lorre–voiced maggots, the movie is not merely "based on a Russian folktale," but is a knowing thievery from S.Y. Agnon and Sholom Aleichem, and bears trace elements of 17th-century tales and traditions, including the Ukrainian-shtetl "cholera wedding," a bridal ceremony held in the cemetery and featuring danses macabreshoofed between the tombstones. Its heart, beating or not, belongs to the pre-industrial ages of black forests, tenuous life spans, and the mysteries of evanescent flesh. Extras include no fewer than seven background docs and loads of production art.

 
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