Tim Burton’s charming and lively “Corpse Bride” begins with delightfully appropriate symbiosis: The story opens with the lucrative merger of class-conscious families in Victorian-era England. Though such mutually beneficial relationships were common in that era, Hollywood, in general, seems to prefer leeching. Hence, the film really begins with the exception, a collaboration between the versatile lead actor and fantastically imaginative director who just can’t seem to do great work without each other.

In fact, with the exception of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Bride” star Johnny Depp has never worked in a really noteworthy film that didn’t bear Burton’s crest. (Some people will say that “Finding Neverland” was a gem; these people are wrong.) And with the possible exception of “Big Fish,” director Burton has never helmed a classic that didn’t involve his chiseled muse. (Some people will say “Planet of the Apes” was underrated; these people are crazy.) Luckily, the two virtuosos come together again for this animated musical, which proceeds from the social maneuverings of its opening number to an emotional poignancy as disarming as it is endearing.

After the botched wedding rehearsal for penniless, high-society girl Victoria (voiced by Emily Watson, “Breaking the Waves”) and fish-peddler heir Victor (voiced by Depp), the nervous groom accidentally proposes to a lovely and devoted young woman who also happens to be dead (Helena Bonham Carter, “Big Fish”). Sucked down into the hereafter, Victor longs to return to his sweet fiancee in the dreary world above.

Such gruesome plot points should be no surprise to anyone familiar with Burton’s style. Having established himself as master of the whimsically macabre, the director brands the film with as pronounced a personal stamp as any in recent memory. The stop-motion animation, also employed in the Burton-produced “Nightmare Before Christmas,” is impressively detailed, giving the characters an outstanding range of emotional subtlety that rivals flesh and blood.

Also adding to that Burton flair is a playful score from longtime collaborator Danny Elfman. The music is a perfect match for the film’s pleasantly demented tone and never becomes overbearing while helping the story reach for an emotional high note. Unfortunately, the full-out musical numbers are less spectacular, settling for measly entertaining when they should be infectious.

Beyond this, the only real criticism of the film might be that it’s too short. Or, more accurately, that the film’s material provides only enough momentum to hit the hour-and-a-quarter mark. Kudos to Burton for not contriving to stretch the film past its narrative limits, but considering that the much-beloved “Nightmare Before Christmas” already used many of the visual tricks employed here, “Corpse Bride” would have benefited from a more innovative and well-developed story.

That’s not to say the film’s not clever. It’s a visual masterpiece in which the dead are far more alive than the living. There isn’t a superfluous frame in sight, and every shot is breathtaking. The film is, quite simply, classic Burton-Depp – the familiar form done up with imagination and originality spilling forth from every scene, ensuring it a peaceful resting place in every quirky family’s movie collection for decades to come.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


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