Corpse Bride, painstakingly filmed as a stop-motion animation, is recognisably Tim Burton’s film even without the co-director’s name appearing in the title. A dark Victorian romance set in 19th century Europe, it’s every bit as black humoured and oddball as Burton’s previous live action films Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice but walks a tightrope between horror and comedy.
The tale begins with an arranged marriage of parental convenience between Victor (Johnny Depp), son of affluent nouveau riche parents (Tracey Ullman and Paul Whitehouse), and Victoria (Emily Watson), delicate daughter of penniless aristocrats (Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney). Against the odds, the couple fall in love upon meeting, but the wedding is called off when shy Victor stumbles with his vows and sets fire to his prospective mother-in-law.
Taking to an eerie, overgrown graveyard to practice his lines, he finally gets it right and slides the wedding ring over a twig – unwittingly unleashing a mysterious murdered bride (Helena Bonham Carter) called Emily from beyond the grave who is cloyingly pleased to finally be married.
So begins Victor’s dilemma – a tug of war between two brides from different worlds. Burton makes it clear that he prefers the world of the dead, for the land of the living is a strange, repressive and fog-smothered world of greys and purples. By contrast the world of the dead is a place of umpteen one-liners, colourful skeletons and a happy-go-lucky attitude of togetherness. There’s a four-legged surprise for Victor too – his childhood dog, Scraps, is there to greet him, although he does look a little on the thin side.
But a resolution must quickly be found, for Victoria’s parents, quickly recovering from Victor’s disappearance, have decided to marry their daughter to Barkis Bittern (Richard E Grant), an allegedly wealthy lord who promises riches but whose dastardly agenda sets him as the film’s least sympathetic character.
We root for Victor in his dilemma, but we must also spare a thought for Victoria, whose predicament is not of her – or anyone else’s – making. But while the corpse bride might have been a two-dimensional villain of the piece, we want her to be happy too. Her sympathetic character marks her out not as the bad party but as a person as deserving of happiness and fulfilment as Victor and Victoria.
Burton’s twisted vision and singular humour make this a very different animation from the usual half-term teen-targetted fare, and the Hallowe’en release date is surely tongue in cheek. But Corpse Bride is that rare thing – an animated film that seems mainly for adults, but which children might like too. At just 77 minutes it feels rather on the short side, but Burton’s fans have cause to be charmed once again.