As a Hollywood mogul, Tim Burton has succeeded in molding his devotion to old pulp and antiquated methods into a cooler-than-cool marketing triumph—and though it may be an achievement too often kudoed for its own sake, it is still a welcome sign of neurotic, even perverse life in an otherwise moribund system. Can we safely enjoy the irony of new-millennium blockbusters that iconicize ’70s kid-junk, when their primary ticket-buying demographic remains oblivious? Why not: Look at Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, which is surely 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 78 sweet minutes.
Shot with stop-motion puppetry but greasing its wheels with digital oil, Bride is as underwritten as other Burton films: A sallow youth (Johnny Depp), avoiding a marriage arranged by greedy adults, mistakenly practices his vows in the presence of a half-buried skeleton in the woods (Helena Bonham Carter) and is 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 (which all sound alike and echo other Elfman tunes, going back to Oingo Boingo). “I can feel my heart aching/Though it doesn’t beat it’s breaking . . . “—a frustrated Weill, Elfman should stick to kitsch chorales.
As a night out for middle schoolers, the film might seem bantam weight. But PR-stoked expectations might steer us clear from its true essence: Burton and his team of tireless nudges (surely Burton, a busy guy, did little frame-by-frame “directing”) have crafted a humble slice of Old World folklore. Claude Levi-Strauss would be whipping out the graph paper. Corpse Bride isn’t roughly “based on a Russian folktale” but a knowing thievery from S.Y. Agnon and Sholom Aleichem, who in turn made their careers converting centuries of Jewish mythology into fiction. 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 scenario (written by John August, Caroline Thompson, and Pamela Pettler) has tidbits that can be traced back to 17th-century tales and traditions, including the Ukrainian-shtetl “cholera wedding,” a bridal ceremony held in the cemetery and featuring danses macabres hoofed between the tombstones.
“Little Miss Living!” the blue-skinned heroine jealously scoffs at her husband’s pink-cheeked “other woman”; Corpse Bride never skimps on the sass (as a good folktale shouldn’t). And the variety of its cadaverous style is never less than inspired; never has the human skull’s natural grin been redeployed so exhaustively for yuks. But its heart, beating or not, belongs to the preindustrial ages of black forests, tenuous life spans, and the mysteries of evanescent flesh.