It's been more than a decade since The Nightmare Before Christmas hit screens, but the merchandise continues to sell, and new Nightmare tchotchkes still come out every year. It's tempting to pin that longevity entirely on the film's amazing design, which remains the most enduring and revolutionary thing about what was otherwise generally just another narratively lumpy family musical, in spite of the morbid Tim Burton twist. The details of the story blur a bit over time, but the details of the characters—every loving little groove and line and stitch that went into making them real—still linger.
An identical fanatic attention to detail went into Corpse Bride, another short, giddily eerie feature made via the same stop-motion method. Taking over for Nightmare director Henry Selick, Burton and co-director Mike Johnson hold to the same breathtaking visual standard, producing a film so smoothly animated and packed with tiny, cunning visual touches that it resembles Pixar's CGI work on films like Toy Story and The Incredibles. The story is simple enough to describe in a sentence: Shy, bungling Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp) is heading for an arranged marriage to sweet Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), but while rehearsing his vows, he accidentally puts her wedding ring on the hand of a well-meaning but marriage-fixated corpse (Helena Bonham Carter) who claims him as her husband and drags him off to the land of the dead. Much of the rest of the film involves peripheral characters glowering, gallivanting, or just goofing around, and busy, talky Danny Elfman songs that are mostly just for show.
But it's a hell of a show. Like Nightmare, Corpse Bride is full of extreme caricatures seemingly inspired by old Rankin/Bass stop-motion specials (The Year Without A Santa Claus, et. al.). Like all Burton's best work, it takes place in a distorted, vividly colored, meticulously crafted world where whimsy and gleeful ghoulishness mix freely. From the finely textured hair and marvelously expressive faces of the silicon puppets to the little visual gags peppered throughout, every frame of Corpse Bride is an eye-popping wonderland. And it helps that Burton generally keeps the fairy-tale tone low-key and gentle. Bride lacks Nightmare's intensity, but also its manic highs and disappointing lows. Its characters, concept, and execution are all gently charming, and even its brief flirtation with a plot involving villainy and murder just seems like a grace note in a pleasantly plaintive elegy. All too often, Tim Burton's movies feel like they're covered in flop sweat, as if he's trying too hard and worrying too much. By contrast, Corpse Bride is a cool breeze across the brow.