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Among the American filmmakers who came to prominence in the ‘90s, few have experienced the level of diminished returns that has afflicted Tim Burton’s career. Over the past decade, the erstwhile gothic maestro has delivered one disappointment after another, driven in part by the 2010 blockbuster sensation “Alice in Wonderland.” The movie delivered massive box office dollars around the planet, but reduced Burton’s kooky energy to formula readymade to rejuvenate dormant IP, setting unreasonable expectations that did him no favors, and culminated in last year’s dud “Dumbo.” While 2012’s “Frankenweenie” provided a charming callback to the zany aesthetic that put Burton on the map, it hardly achieved more than that.
To truly appreciate Burton at his best, you have to go back 15 years.
That was when “Corpse Bride,” an intoxicating Victorian fantasy that Burton made in between production on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” encapsulated everything that makes this filmmaker such a singular artist in the very place. Co-directed with Mike Johnson, this stop-motion wonder doesn’t waste a frame, delivering pure unbridled Burtonesque joy at every turn: In 77 minutes, it delivers a haunting ghost story with ample romance, inventive sight gags, and fairy tale wonder, united by a handful of soulful Danny Elfman tunes.
Before you can say “Nightmare Before Christmas,” not quite: “Corpse Bride” doesn’t turn on the same vast world-building as that holiday staple, which took Burton’s vision and expanded it to an epic framework. Instead, it operates on an intimate scale, weeding out the invasive need to pander to wider audiences that often pervades Burton’s storytelling and gets in the way of its most endearing qualities. We may have “Nightmare” to thank for justifying the expense of “Corpse Bride,” but “Corpse Bride” distills Burton’s distinctive artistry to its bare essence.
Over the years, the filmmaker’s best ideas have merged spookiness with sensitivity, and that’s certainly the case with the plight of wide-eyed Victor Van Dort — the wayward young bachelor voiced by Johnny Depp — who accidentally recites his vows to the ghost of a murdered woman, and finds himself in a rather ghastly love triangle. On the one hand, the world of “Corpse Bride” registers as an extension of the “Nightmare” universe, with the stop motion materials combining a sense of familiarity with dreamlike remove. At the same time, it conjures a wilder experimental quality, combining the icy milieu of 19th century English literature with the graphic eeriness of an Edward Gorey cartoon. It’s Burton unplugged in a way we’ve never seen him before or since.
Anything goes in “Corpse Bride,” and when Victor winds up thrust into the afterlife for a song about the dead woman to whom he accidentally offered his hand, the movie explodes with visual innovation. “Remains of the Day,” Elfman’s riotous, jazzy showstopping number, includes a delightful throwback to the famed Disney short “The Skeleton Dance,” and showcases Burton’s ability to transform the macabre into a delightful getaway while the land of the living remains an uninviting drag.
Through it all, Victor is an innocent conduit: He’s a useless tool of society, with his wealthy fishmonger parents eager to marry him off to Victoria (Emily Watson), the child of aristocracy, to improve their family’s class. Only once he’s thrust into an otherworldly scheme, forced to choose one bride over the other while correcting the sins of the past, does he gain some confidence and communal responsibility.
It’s a concept equal parts “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands,” the two movies that best illustrated Burton’s storytelling strengths at the height of his popularity. Burton always struggles when he gets away from his best instincts. “Corpse Bride” arrived at a curious turning point, as he revved up for one of his biggest spate of successes followed by a steep decline. 2007’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” was a blast, merging Burton’s gruesome interests with a Grand Guignol musical on the same wavelength. Then came the rough patch that continues to this day: the aimless hodgepodge of overpriced visuals in “Alice,” a pointless “Dark Shadows” reboot, the shrug of “Frankenweenie,” the half-baked drama of “Big Eyes,” the unmemorable “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” and the inanity that fills every frame of “Dumbo.”
Of course, many commercial filmmakers stumble through projects that probably should have stayed on the cutting room floor. But every Burton dud stings from the knowledge that so much greatness preceded it. Burton has never been more personal than “Ed Wood,” never more gonzo than “Mars Attacks!,” never kinkier than “Batman Returns.” Still, only “Corpse Bride” boils down Burton’s visionary appeal in every moment, and serves as a reminder of everything that makes one of America’s greatest filmmakers worthy of constant appreciation no matter what he does next.
“Corpse Bride” is now streaming on Netflix.