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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (HD DVD)
Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (HD DVD)
Warner Bros. // PG // October 10, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $28.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 16, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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It seems as if barely a week goes by anymore without some interchangeable computer animated flick hitting theaters. Scrounge up a few recognizable voices, animate a gaggle of anthropomorphized critters scampering around a Maya-modeled forest, churn out a few cheap plastic tie-ins for Burger King, then pass 'go' and collect a couple hundred million bucks. I couldn't pick The Wild, Over the Hedge, or Open Season out of a line-up, and that may be part of the reason I was especially eager to pick up a copy of Tim Burton's far more distinctive Corpse Bride when it hit HD DVD.

Unrelated to The Nightmare Before Christmas but the closest thing to a sequel its legions of fans are likely to see, the Victorian-era Corpse Bride opens shortly before Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp) and Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson) are to be wed. It's not a celebration of their undying love or the inevitable conclusion of a whirlwind romance -- they've never actually met -- so much as a means to an end for their opportunistic parents. Nouveau riche fishmonger William Van Dort and his wife (voiced by Paul Whitehouse and Tracey Ullman) command great wealth but are sorely lacking in social stature, while the pretentious, old money Everglots (Albert Finney and Joanna Lumley) are respected but near-penniless. It's a marriage of convenience, and whether or not Victor and Victoria hit it off is purely incidental. Neither the groom nor the bride-to-be are terribly interested in the prospect of marrying a complete stranger, but during a chance encounter as their parents hammer out some last minute details, they instantly fall for one another.

Victor disastrously bungles his vows during the wedding rehearsal, and after a vicious tongue-lashing by Pastor Galswells (Christopher Lee) for being so ill-prepared, he embarrassedly darts out of the church and into a nearby forest. Wandering absent-mindedly while practicing his vows over and over again, Victor finally seems to have nailed it as he asks a spindly tree limb for its hand in marriage. As it turns out, that tree limb is actually part of the skeletal remains of a murdered bride, and Victor now finds himself the reluctant husband to the cadaverous Emily (Helena Bonham Carter). Thinking she's finally found true love, the Corpse Bride spirits Victor off to her cozy home in the underworld. As he schemes to find someway back 'upstairs', the Everglots shrug off the vanished Victor and decide to pair their daughter with a different meal ticket, the sneering, calculating Lord Bittern (Richard E. Grant).

Like The Nightmare Before Christmas and the Burton-produced James and Giant Peach before it, Corpse Bride was shot using stop-motion animation but with a far more refined approach. Animators usually change out prefabricated heads or alternate between a number of different predefined mouth shapes; Corpse Bride's puppets were fitted with mechanical heads, and subtle facial movements were manipulated the same way you might adjust a watch. I'm sure it was a tedious and nightmarish way of animating the characters throughout the more than hundred thousand frames that comprise Corpse Bride, but the end result is a technical marvel. This technique results in characters that are strikingly expressive, a necessity for this sort of sweet love story to feel convincing. Corpse Bride is a gorgeous film, benefitting from not just the skewed sense of design that has become Tim Burton's trademark but from remarkably fluid animation, richly detailed sets, and an inventive use of color. Stop-motion animation may be a dying art in this age of digital wizardry, but Corpse Bride is proof-positive that that rigor mortis hasn't set in yet.

Corpse Bride is a visual feast, but that's not to say that Burton and company have ignored what made The Nightmare Before Christmas so endearing. It's a very sweet and charming movie, and Victor, Victoria, and Emily are so expressive and have such genuinely likeable personalities that their love triangle is surprisingly resonant. Some parents may be understandably skittish about sitting down with their children to watch a movie with "corpse" in the title, but although Corpse Bride has a macabre sense of humor, it really doesn't go for scares. Kids may cackle when a maggot pops out one of Emily's eyes or when one of her undead pals splits himself in two, but there's nothing excessively grotesque.

Corpse Bride's shortcomings really only come by comparison to Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas; Danny Elfman's songs aren't quite as infectious this time around, and as much as I enjoyed the movie, its story doesn't reach quite the same heights as its skeletal great-uncle. Still, Corpse Bride is a wonderful film that's infused with an indescribable amount of artistry and emotion, and it's one of the most easily recommended HD DVDs available right now.

Video: I have a new reference disc in this 1.85:1 HD DVD of Corpse Bride. The animation may not have been digital, but its photography was; each of the movie's hundred thousand-plus frames was snapped with a digital camera at several times the resolution of high-definition video. This transfer bypasses any intermediate celluloid stage, so there isn't a trace of film grain, visible wear, or speckling to be found. Corpse Bride boasts a depth and dimensionality I haven't seen in any of the more than fifty other HD DVDs I've watched to date. The image is startlingly sharp and detailed, and every object on the screen is bolstered by such fine textures that they almost seem tactile. This is the type of sterling presentation that would magnify even the smallest blemish, and it's all the more impressive that there isn't a single perceptible flaw in any of the characters or sets.

Even with most of the color drained away from the scenes in uptight Victorian England, Corpse Bride's palette is immediately arresting, all the more so when Victor vanishes from the mostly monochromatic mortal plane and re-emerges in the vividly saturated underworld. The movie features a number of very smooth gradients, to such a point that some displays will have trouble reproducing them without some degree of posterization.

As impressed as I've been with so many HD DVDs over the past six months, Corpse Bride eclipses them all. A truly exceptional effort, Corpse Bride is the first disc I'll reach for to show off my home theater to friends and family for some time to come.

Audio: Corpse Bride's spectacular visuals are accompanied by an enveloping Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtrack. Danny Elfman's varied musical contributions -- jazzy in the loose-'n-lively underworld and polite and traditionally classical among the stodgy Victorians -- come through wonderfully. As someone with a mild obsession with harpsichords, it's a treat to hear one of my favorite instruments featured so prominently in the score. The lower frequencies are robust but never overwhelm the flawlessly rendered dialogue delivered by the movie's brilliantly cast voice actors, and the surround channels are used both frequently and to great effect.

Per usual, the disc also includes six channel dubs in French and Spanish along with optional subtitles in all three of the disc's languages.

Supplements: Corpse Bride's extras are essentially the same as they were on the original DVD release, anchored around fifty minutes of short featurettes. "Inside the Two Worlds" (4 min.) focuses primarily on how the differences between the lively underworld and the frigid realm of the living are reflected in the film's visuals. Each world also has its own distinct musical style, and composer/voice actor Danny Elfman comments on the musical numbers as well as his process of writing and recording in his own five minute featurette. In fact, there's an extra for nearly everyone involved in any capacity with Corpse Bride, including a three and a half minute clip about the cast and crew gushing about working with Tim Burton. "Voices from the Underworld" (6 min.) introduces each of the actors contributing their vocal talents to the film, and the quickly tiresome "The Voices Behind the Voice" (7:30) places footage of the recording of Corpse Bride's dialogue alongside the corresponding bits from the movie.

The most fascinating extras, naturally, are those that focus most closely on the stop-motion animation. My favorite is a thirteen and a half minute pre-production gallery; if it moves, it's featured somewhere in this comprehensive assortment of footage, down to minor background figures, various animals, and even a wedding cake. Animation tests show these characters in greatly varying stages of completion, even offering some pencil tests demonstrating how lips should move and how eyes should blink. This gallery also follows the process of production from initial storyboards through to a fully completed shot. "Making Puppets Tick" (6:30) takes a look at the design and creation of these puppets along with some of the challenges that go into crafting something so expressive and anatomically unstable. The natural follow-up is "The Animators: The Breath of Life" (6:30) as it delves into the unique aesthetic of stop-motion versus the industry standard CG animation, how animators are cast in much the same way as voice actors, and how computers have advanced the art of stop-motion animation. The featurette closes with some time-lapse photography of the animators at work.

Corpse Bride also features an isolated score in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 as well as a standard definition, anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer.

Conclusion: Corpse Bride may not be the instant classic that The Nightmare Before Christmas was, but it is a charming love story with a quirky, macabre sense of humor, standing alongside Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit as my favorite animated film of 2005. The reference quality visuals just make this HD DVD that much easier to recommend. Highly Recommended.

Standard image disclaimer: the pictures scattered around this review were lifted from the official movie site and don't necessarily reflect the appearance of this HD DVD.
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