Directed by: Tim Burton and Mike Johnson
Written by: John August, Pamela Pettler, and Caroline Thompson
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Tracey Ullman, Paul Whitehouse, Joanna Lumley, Albert Finney, and Christopher Lee

I love stop-motion animation. You take a figure and move it by hand one frame at a time—24 frames for one second of actual film. Then, when you run the film through a projector, you get an illusion of actual movement…the illusion of life. As a child, I thrilled to the work of Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, Clash of the Titans), but then came the “Go-motion” rod puppets of Dragonslayer, followed by the computer-generated dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, and the artform—like those dinosaurs—became all but extinct. Enter director Tim Burton. Burton, like myself, loves the medium and used it to great effect in the 1993 film The Nightmare Before Christmas. Now, more than ten years after that film achieved a huge level of cult adoration, the director has once again turned to stop-motion to realize his new vision: The Corpse Bride.

Victor Van Dort (the voice of Johnny Depp) is to enter into an arranged marriage with Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson). It seems Victor’s parents (Paul Whitehouse and Tracey Ullman) are wealthy Fishmongers who are embarrassed that young Victor can’t seem to find a wife, and Victoria’s parents (Albert Finney and Joanna Lumley) are an aristocratic family that has squandered its money and will go to debtor’s prison without the merger…er, wedding. Despite the fact that they have never even seen each other, Victor and Victoria have a wonderful first meeting on the eve of this ceremony and find—surprise, surprise—that there is real love there.

This revelation does not help to calm Victor’s nerves, however, and the rehearsal is an utter disaster. He runs from the church to a nearby cemetery. There, he practices his vows again and places the wedding ring on what he thinks is a twig. No such luck. It is actually the hand of Emily, the Corpse Bride—a young woman who was murdered on her wedding day. She rises from the earth and whisks Victor off to the land of the dead as her new husband.

Burton (Batman, Sleepy Hollow) proves he hasn’t lost his love of gothic imagery. One of the great things about stop-motion animation is that you can light it just as you would a normal live-action picture. As a result, you get true shadows. Burton plays with this, filling the world of the dead with light and bright color. The world of the living, by contrast, is dark gray and purple. It’s a cold, boring place. The world of the dead is where you’d want to be if you had the choice.

The voice actors give wonderful performances that really bring these puppets to life. Depp’s nervous stammering gives way to confidence. Watson’s shyness turns to despair. And Bonham Carter creates great sympathy for Emily and her situation. In fact, the screenplay by John August, Pamela Pettler, and Caroline Thompson deserves much credit for its approach to this love triangle. They could have made Emily a terrifying specter. But no, she is someone you care about. You like these three characters, and you want them each to somehow find happiness.

If the film has one weakness, it is in the songs written by Danny Elfman. Unlike the memorable work he did for Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas (I still find myself humming those songs from time to time), these little ditties seem to be there just for the sake of having songs. They don’t really add anything to the story and are quite unnecessary. If Pixar and Shrek have taught us anything, it’s that you don’t need to make every animated film a musical. Burton could learn from their example.

But this is a minor gripe. The film is a feast for the eyes. It’s a great big gothic wonderland that brought back wonderful memories of late night monster movies from my youth. It’s truly a film for the young, and the young at heart. The MPAA has rated the movie PG for “frightening images,” but you know your own kids. I watched it with my two boys and they sat there, eyes filled with wonder and amazement, and enjoyed every single frame.

4 out of 5 stars.