Most viewers' first instinct in watching Tim Burton's Corpse Bride will be to compare it to the filmmaker's previous animated masterpiece The Nightmare Before Christmas, so let's get that right out of the way. The two films are clearly stylistic and thematic cousins, both musicals produced in beautiful stop-motion animation and infused with Burton's sublime sense of the macabre. Some of the background characters here also look like they could have stepped right out of Nightmare without missing a beat. The two are very different films, however. Nightmare was more of a comedy, joyous and rambunctious. Corpse Bride, on the other hand, may revel in some of the same dark humor and Burton's wonderful visual inventiveness, but is much more of a classical romance. Think Sleeping Beauty by way of Beetlejuice.
Frequent Burton collaborator Johnny Depp voices the spindly loner Victor Van Dort, a fishmonger's son forced by his family into an arranged marriage of convenience. Terrified by the prospect of so much as speaking to a girl, Victor first lays eyes on the delicate flower Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson) on the day before their wedding and is instantly smitten. For her part, Victoria returns the affection in kind, and the pairing seems an ideal match. Unfortunately, Victor's nerves get the better of him, and his flailing about through the ceremony rehearsal leaves both families upset. Pacing through the woods that night, Victor is determined to learn his vows properly, and practices the placement of his ring on what he thinks is a tree branch, only to discover that the branch is in fact a skeletal hand. By reciting his vows aloud, he thus inadvertently raises the spirit of the Corpse Bride (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter, but designed with a creepy resemblance to Depp's own corpse-like girlfriend Vanessa Paradis), who accepts Victor's proposal and drags him down with her to the land of the dead.
Getting past his initial shock and fear, Victor discovers that the underworld is a pretty happening place, filled with more vibrancy and life than the dour world above. He also develops great sympathy and affection for the Corpse Bride herself, a woman he might have fallen in love with under different circumstances. But thoughts of his beloved Victoria beckon him to the return back to the land of the living and find a way to break his current marriage contract, much to the discontent of his new wife. Victor also doesn't give a whole lot of thought to how Victoria will react to being part of a most unusual love triangle.
Like its predecessor, Corpse Bride is a gorgeously animated work of art. The character and production designs are marvels of inventiveness. You just want to watch the movie over and over again to catch every little detail. Burton's twisted sense of humor is also certainly on display, manifested in details like the "2nd Hand Shoppe" or the maggot that looks and sounds like Peter Lorre living in the Bride's skull. The tone here is vastly different, though, more melancholy and emotional. The movie seems to be primarily designed for adults and will probably not have as much appeal to either young boys (who'll find it too slow and "girly") or young girls (who'll find it too dark and icky). Danny Elfman once again contributes music and songs, but none are quite as catchy or memorable as those in Nightmare Before Christmas. The script also lacks sufficient development for Victor's emotional swings. First he's in love with Victoria, then decides he's in love with the Corpse Bride, then it's back to Victoria again, all with little motivation or explanation. And let's just say that Victoria is a lot more forgiving of his transgressions than any real woman would ever be.
In the end, Corpse Bride is likely easier to admire than to love, but there's really quite a lot to admire. It's a film made with tremendous artistry, and tends to fare better with repeat viewings where you can pick up on the subtle details missed the first time around. It falls short of being quite the classic that Nightmare Before Christmas is, but those are awfully big shoes to fill and Corpse Bride has plenty of its own wonders to share.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Tim Burton's Corpse Bride debuts on the Blu-ray format courtesy of Warner Home Video. A comparable HD DVD edition will be following shortly.
Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Corpse Bride Blu-ray is encoded in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression on a single-layer 25 gb disc. The movie's theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio has been slightly opened up to fill a 16:9 frame with negligible impact to the composition.
The movie was photographed with digital still cameras (unlike The Nightmare Before Christmas, which was shot on traditional 35mm film), and the High-Def master used for this Blu-ray disc features a direct-digital transfer from the animation files. As expected, the picture quality looks wonderful. The world of the living in the film is portrayed in stark monochromatic tones, while the world of the dead thrives in vivid colors. Both are reproduced almost flawlessly. The image is sharp, with excellent texture and depth, and no edge enhancement artifacting. Black levels are solid and have plenty of shadow detail in the darkness. This is a fantastic High Definition picture.
The disc's digital compression quality has no serious problems, but there is a brief instance of posterization at the very beginning of the film. After the Warner Bros. logo, as the picture fades in there's a faint wave of color banding that moves up the image like a milky cloud. The mere fact of pointing it out makes it sound worse than it really is, however. The artifact is so slight that I literally blinked and missed it my first time through the movie, and only caught it on a second viewing.
I've read discussion of the disc transfer that complained of more severe posterization and video noise throughout the movie, but I was watching it with eagle eyes tuned and had a hard time finding anything to complain about. A specific time code referenced was 8 min. 45 sec. into the movie. I watched the scene on my DLP projector and it looked rock solid to me, even after boosting the brightness to obscene levels to see if any noise was hiding in the shadows. I just couldn't find any problems there, so I watched the same scene on my secondary LCD monitor and sure enough it was a big noisy mess. The particular LCD model I own has a known problem with limited color bit-depth, and I get similar artifacts watching a lot of material on it because the monitor simply can't reproduce subtle color gradients. That's an issue with the TV, not the disc, and is the reason I don't use it as my primary reference display. I point this out because the movie has many such color gradients, which may prove problematic on certain types of televisions but not all. Nonetheless, this is a hardware limitation and I can't hold that against the disc.
The Corpse Bride Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in standard Dolby Digital 5.1 at a high 640 kb/s bit rate. The volume of many scenes, including the opening, is set low by default and I found myself needing to amplify it above normal levels, but later scenes (especially those in the underworld) are much louder and I had a hard time finding a comfortable compromise volume.
The movie is of course a musical, and the score and songs are reproduced with very good fidelity, though I was hoping for the kind of clarity where I can pick out individual instruments and was a bit disappointed in that respect. Surround envelopment is mostly subtle, comprised mainly of ambient sounds and music bleed. This isn't an overly aggressive mix aside from some of the jazzier tunes. The track has a fair amount of bass but won't be shaking your walls.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French or Spanish DD 5.1.
All of the bonus features on this Blu-ray title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression. All of the supplements from the DVD have carried over.
- Inside the Two Worlds (9 min.) – A look at the stylistic differences between the land of the living and the land of the dead as portrayed in the movie.
- Danny Elfman Interprets the Two Worlds (5 min.) – The composer discusses his songs and the musical score.
- The Animators: The Breath of Life (7 min.) – Discussion of the stop-motion animation techniques and the digital still photography. Co-director Mike Johnson is seen carrying out most of the day-to-day directing duties.
- Tim Burton: Dark vs. Light (4 min.) – The filmmaker's signature style and his influences on the production are analyzed.
- Voices from the Underworld (6 min.) – The cast and their performances are highlighted. Tim Burton is seen directing the actors.
- Making Puppets Tick (7 min.) – Focus on the sculpting, painting, mechanics, and costumes of the puppets, as well how the characters were designed.
- The Voices Behind the Voice (8 min.) – Footage of the actors recording their lines is compared with the final animation. This segment is a little dull.
- The Corpse Bride Pre-Production Galleries (14 min.) – Various animation tests are featured. Despite the lack of narration, some of this footage will be fascinating for animation buffs.
- Theatrical Trailer - A surprisingly good trailer that does an excellent job of selling the movie.
- Music-Only Track - The entire film can be watched with just the music for audio. No dialogue, song lyrics, or sound effects are heard.
It may not be the masterpiece that The Nightmare Before Christmas was, but Corpse Bride is a fine piece of animated entertainment made with great artistry and love. The Blu-ray disc has excellent picture quality (still a rarity in these early days of the format) and easily merits a strong recommendation.
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