Ostensibly codirected by Burton and Mike Johnson, this macabre fairy tale about a nervous bridegroom who accidentally betroths himself to a cadaver is clearly Burton's show all the way. Somewhere in some dour, gray, 19th-century land beyond the forest, sensitive Victor Van Dort (voice of Johnny Depp), son of nouveaux riches fishmongers (Tracy Ullman, Paul...read more
Ostensibly codirected by Burton and Mike Johnson, this macabre fairy tale about a nervous bridegroom who accidentally betroths himself to a cadaver is clearly Burton's show all the way. Somewhere in some dour, gray, 19th-century land beyond the forest, sensitive Victor Van Dort (voice of Johnny Depp), son of nouveaux riches fishmongers (Tracy Ullman, Paul Whitehouse), is to marry into the aristocratic but broke Everglot family. Though his imperious future in-laws (Joanna Lumley, Albert Finney) are snobs, Victor's bride-to-be, Victoria (Emily Watson), is a lovely and artistic young woman, the soul mate Victor always hoped to find. But at their wedding rehearsal he repeatedly flubs his vows and runs off into the deep, dark wood in shame, trying to get the cursed words right until he finally recites them perfectly. He slips Victoria's ring onto what he thinks is a desiccated branch sticking out from under the snow. But it's actually the skeletal hand of Emily (Helena Bonham Carter), a bride murdered by her duplicitous lover, and she accepts Victor's proposal and whisks him off to the Land of the Dead. In the surprisingly happening underworld, every day is the Dia de los Muertos, and the streets are bathed in washes of colored light and abuzz with cheerful skeletons who shake, rattle and roll their single eyeballs from socket to socket while half-rotted corpses carouse all night in establishments where the headwaiter is just that — a disembodied head. Even Victor's pallid cheeks take on a rosy glow. But while touched by Emily's sad story — delivered in the form of a bravura jumpin'-jive number by a bowler-hatted bag o' bones and crew — Victor wants only to return to Victoria. She, in turn, has been promised to a mysterious stranger, Count Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant), by her grasping parents. From the maggot (Enn Reitel) who roosts behind Emily's eyeball and feeds her wicked thoughts in doleful Peter Lorre tones to the scampering spiders who reweave Victor's clothes, this puppet-animated feature is cheerfully eerie and steeped in love for old horror films, unfolding in a weirdly canted mittel-Europe that's equal parts Hammer Victoriana and THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919). But the real marvel is that beneath the ghoulish in-jokes and horror-geek allusions, there's a core of the same bittersweet truth that makes the best fairy tales resonate from one generation to the next: The film's final image is as sweetly magical as any live-action story of doomed love.
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