My wife is a big fan of Johnny Depp and The Nightmare Before Christmas, so I knew we were going to see this movie as soon as it came out. When she described the plot to me, I said, "sounds like a Russian fairytale." To which she replied, "you're scary." Corpse Bride is indeed loosely based on a Russian fairytale.
The reason the plot made me think of Russian fairytales is because the concept of death and ghosts in Russian myth is more akin to fairies and fairyland than traditional European purgatory. Ghosts can lead a rich existence in the afterlife, including marriage. This concept might be a bit difficult to grasp for American audiences, but Corpse Bride mixes belief systems anyway so it's not that critical to the enjoyment of the film.
Basically, Victor Van Dort (Depp) is to be married to Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson). Victor is the son of a successful fishmonger, and thus has plenty of money but no status. The upcoming bourgeois class, so to speak. Conversely, Victoria comes from an impoverished noble class. The marriage is one of necessity, and yet the two find they love each other anyway.
It's all very quaint. Into this mess steps two sinister characters: the Corpse Bride herself (Helena Bonham Carter) who is rather lusciously sculpted, and Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant), a male black widow of sorts who marries women for their dowries. Barkis is apparently a complete idiot, as he can't seem to recognize that the Everglots are dirt poor, even though the family bemoans this situation at every corner. And oh yeah, their mansion is a dirty mess.
After a disastrous wedding rehearsal (with Christopher Lee lending his deep baritone of disapproval to Pastor Galswells), Victor wanders off into the forest to rehearse his lines. He rehearses them on what he thinks is a tree, only to accidentally propose to the Corpse Bride herself. In no time, she whisks him away to the Neitherworld-oh wait, sorry, wrong movie-to the underworld. Or somewhere that dead people go.
One might be led to believe that this is the place where ghosts go, but it doesn't seem like it. If anything, the dead seem to have a much more enjoyable time than the living. It has a very Mexican Day of the Dead feel to it, with a lot more color than the black and grays that color the living world. Everyone in this strange underworld is a walking punch line (the chef is just a head…the head chef. Get it?!). After much wrangling, Victor convinces his new bride to visit the living to meet his parents. This takes a good ten minutes of dialogue and preparation.
After his return, Victor resigns himself to marrying the Corpse Bride. But there's a catch: he has to really be dead to marry her. So Victor decides to give up the ghost, so to speak. The dead then march off to the living world and hilarity ensues. Which is strange, since it was so difficult the first time to get Victor and his Corpse Bride up to the surface the first time around.
Corpse Bride is a lot like that. It sets up a rule and then gets bored with it. The conclusion is satisfying, although a little trite. Without giving the rest of the plot away, the question of whether the dead are undead…or just dead and loving it, is never really answered. In typical Burton fashion, the movie blithely moves along without worrying too much about logic.
In that regard Corpse Bride is a lot of fun. The characters are perfect parodies of Victorian-era archetypes. The living world has the feel of a Gormenghast novel, which is undeniably depressing, claustrophobic, and very, very British. There aren't enough musical sequences, but the ones that do pop up are amusing. Unfortunately, some of the musical themes recur throughout the film (specifically, "according to plan"), but the characters sing so infrequently that you forget what they're referencing.
There are horror homages too. With Burton, there always are: the Corpse Bride has a maggot (Enn Reitel) in her head that sounds like Peter Lorre. It gets old fast. The piano is a Harryhausen, named after the famous stop-motion animator, Ray Harryhausen.
It's also not nearly as charming as The Nightmare Before Christmas. The animation is superb, but that doesn't mean much in a world of CGI and well, Burton's other films. You won't be humming any of the tunes afterwards and the characters aren't fleshed out enough to care all that much. Heck, the villain doesn't even have a good theme song!
If your kids want to see something Halloween-ish, this is just the movie for them. While Corpse Bride is cute, it is not necessarily for young children. There are a lot of dismembered organs moving about (most gruesomely, a fellow who splits himself in two, pulsing organs and all), along with a lot of dead bodies. Adults might be a bit bored, as the plot is fairly linear.
Ultimately, Burton can't top The Nightmare Before Christmas, which has now attained a form of cult status. The Corpse Bride fairytale can be told in a couple of paragraphs, and it doesn't translate as well onto film the way, say, Beauty and the Beast did.