The success of 1993's The Nightmare Before Christmas caught a lot of people off guard, I'm sure. It sounds patently unsuccessful: a stop-motion musical about a skeleton who hijacks Christmas. But the film—which was directed by animator Henry Selick, based off of Tim Burton's story—boasted big box office and video sales, not to mention enough tie-in merchandise to keep hundreds of Hot Topic stores in business for years to come.
So it's a comparison as unfair as it is inevitable: Burton's latest (he co-directed with animator Mike Johnson), Corpse Bride vs. Nightmare. There's little doubt that Corpse Bride will do well financially, and it's only a matter of days until mallrat goths start sporting its characters on T-shirts. But where the financial comparisons are favorable for Corpse Bride, the artistic ones are not.
I don't want to be too hard on the film, because yeah, you'll likely have a good time watching it, and it's gorgeously animated, and it's better than most other films currently playing. But unlike Nightmare, Corpse Bride isn't in a class by itself; its stop motion and cutesy goth tone share enough with its predecessor to make it impossible not to examine the films side by side.
Nebbish Victor is betrothed to shy Victoria in a dreary, gray European town. When Victor gets cold feet, he flees to the even drearier, even grayer woods, placing Victoria's wedding ring on a stick—a stick that turns out to be the decayed hand of a dead bride, who drags Victor down to the rambunctious underworld and insists they're married.
It's a good story, and Corpse Bride is entertaining, despite some nonsensical plot turns and a forcibly happy ending. But Nightmare had something that's lacking here: characters. Corpse Bride—despite a lineup of voice talent that includes Johnny Depp, Emily Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Gough, and Christopher Lee—has nothing but passive puppets that react to the story's manufactured twists; they're as empty and lifeless (pun totally intended) as the toys that they are.
Again, perhaps I'm being too harsh. But maybe Burton's aesthetic is starting to grow old, or maybe Nightmare was just too good to follow. (That's certainly true with the music—the once-great Danny Elfman continues his recent downslide with an unmemorable series of muddled songs.) Either way, the film only suffers when compared to Nightmare, and I was perfectly happy watching it. It's just that I would've been a lot happier if Corpse Bride had felt like a step forward from Nightmare, rather than a step back. ■