Expectations were high when Tim Burton's 'Corpse Bride' hit theaters in the Fall of 2005. Coming almost a decade after 'The Nightmare Before Christmas,' which in the intervening years had become one of the most beloved cult films of our generation, 'The Corpse Bride' had to do nothing less than match the quality and appeal of 'Christmas' or be seen as a disappointment. Unfortunately, though no letdown on the level of a 'James and the Giant Peach,' 'Corpse Bride' really didn't live up to all the anticipation, and after a quick run in theaters and a depressed $53 million domestic gross, it already seems to have been forgotten by most moviegoers.
Like all Tim Burton films, animated or not, 'Corpse Bride' tells the story of an outsider who, through a strange and magical adventure, will come out on the other side transformed. Our tale this time begins as we meet Victor Van Dort, who is engaged to be married but is suffering a very traumatic bout of cold feet. After butchering his lines at his wedding rehearsal, he is sent into the woods by his domineering family to practice his vows. Unfortunately, he performs them so perfectly in a mock ceremony that, when he places his ring on what looks like a twig on the ground, it turns out to be the hand of The Corpse Bride herself. Suddenly, Victor is already married -- even if she isn't quite of this world.
The muted reaction to 'The Corpse Bride' is quite the shame, because as one of the apparently three people who has not seen 'The Nightmare Before Christmas,' I went in with absolutely no preconceived notions. I found 'Corpse Bride' to be an utterly charming, often delightful film, one that borrows from many different animation and narrative traditions. There is Burton's decidedly dark sensibilities, of course, plus utterly gorgeous traditional stop-motion photography and a surprisingly liberal dose of Disney-like magic, especially in the cast of supporting sidekick characters. There is also excellent voice work by Burton regular Johnny Depp as our intrepid hero Victor, and Helena Bonham Carter as the Corpse Bride, plus a terrific all-star supporting cast that includes Emily Watson, Tracey Ullman, Joanna Lumley, Albert Finney and Christopher Lee.
Also a highlight is Danny Elfman's score, which to my ears is one of the best he has composed for a film. Again, I can't say how the songs in 'Corpse Bride' stack up against 'The Nightmare Before Christmas,' but in any case they are certainly superior to his disappointing tunes for 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.' Numbers like 'Remains of the Day,' 'Moon Dance' and 'The Wedding Song' are truly memorable toe-tappers, and the lyrics are never less than cute and sly.
I suppose it will always be too much to ask of 'Corpse Bride' that it equal 'The Nightmare Before Christmas,' which is now regarded as a modern classic. But taken on its own terms, it is hard to imagine anyone, regardless of age, not being delighted by the majority of this film. If nothing else, 'Corpse Bride' is a must-see if only for its incredible stop-motion animation, which is truly a sight to behold. As far as I'm concerned, Tim Burton has done it again.
As the first stop-motion animated film to hit a next-gen high-def format, certainly 'Corpse Bride' will be greeted by much anticipation on Blu-ray (as of now, the film remains without a release date on HD DVD). Thankfully, for me it lives up to all the expectations. Another of Warner's initial Blu-ray titles produced after the studio recently switched from the MPEG-2 compression codec to VC-1, 'Corpse Bride' looks smashing, with a wonderfully detailed, three-dimensional picture that never fails to impress.
I suppose it goes without saying that 'Corpse Bride' is a dark film -- it does come from the mind of Tim Burton, after all. But dark doesn't mean grimy and depressing, and this 1.85:1 transfer is certainly nothing of the sort. The majority of the film's color palette is awash in deep purples and blues, as well as an array of grays, which this Blu-ray disc handles perfectly. Hues are always smooth, consistent and absolutely free of any noise or bleeding. Even the few more vibrant sequences which are splashed with bright reds, yellows and greens, such as Victor's first descent into the world of the Corpse Bride, boast excellent color stability.
Detail and depth are also master class. A noticeable improvement over the standard-def release, the finest details of the animation are clearly visible, from the fine etchings on picture frames to the flowing, intricate stitching of the Corpse Bride's bridal gown. I was also impressed by how three-dimensional the image appears. I don't recall a single shot ever looking anything less that eye-popping, and the transfer does not suffer from any inconsistencies in sharpness -- which is rather surprising for a stop-motion animated film, which often utilize CGI-assisted blurring and other trickery to help smooth out movement.
Finally, compression artifacts are also not an issue. To be honest, I've become a bit predisposed to them given some of the early Blu-ray releases, and just expect to see blockiness and noise as part of the package. But unless my eyes have suddenly failed me, 'Corpse Bride' looks nothing but clean and smooth on Blu-ray, and I was never distracted once by any apparent pixelization or posterization. This one is a definite winner for Blu-ray.
Just as striking as the transfer is 'Corpse Bride's soundtrack. The sound design for the film is wonderful, with highly inventive instances of surround use that fully encompass the viewer. As presented here in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX (encoded at 640kbps, the same bitrate as Dolby Digital-Plus on HD DVD), it sounds better than ever, easily trumping the more compressed Dolby Digital track on the standard-def DVD release. (Also note that if you have a Dolby Digital Surround EX decoder as part of your system, you can decode a matrixed center surround channel from the mix for an even more enveloping aural experience.)
What makes 'Corpse Bride' so effective here is that a very conscious decision was made to use the surrounds for more than tossed-away sound effects or meager score bleed. A full range and variety of sounds are directed to the rears, from full spoken dialogue to individual musical instruments to some percussive low bass "scary stingers." The result is a terrific sense of envelopment, with the full 360-degree soundfield always alive with sound. Technically, the track is just as good, with excellent dynamic range that is wide and spacious, and imaging between channels that sounds just about transparent. Crank up 'Corpse Bride' and you won't be disappointed.
Thanks in part to Warner's switch from MPEG-2 compression to VC-1, there is now more room on a BD-25 single-layer disc for extras, which shows in the wealth of material the studio was able to cram onto 'Corpse Bride.' Containing all of the extras included on the standard-def release, it is a great package of goodies that is sure to please fans of the film.
As there is no audio commentary track included per se (see more below on that), it is up to the eight making-of featurettes to carry the disc's supplements. As always they can be a mixed bag with some redundant information here and there, and sometimes a narrow focus on the technical, but all told it is a fairly comprehensive package.
"Inside the Two Worlds," "Danny Elfman Interprets the Two Worlds" and "Tim Burton: Dark vs. Light" are, combined, a pretty good overview of the basic development of the film's story by its creative team. Burton and Elfman are of course the stars here, and despite a bit of overlap between these three featurettes, it adequately covers all the basics of the original concept, the characters and the songs.
Next up are "The Animators: The Breath of Life," "Making Puppets Tick" and "'Corpse Bride' Preproduction Galleries." More technical in nature, I found these the most fascinating, but again, I haven't seen 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' DVD, which I've been told treads much of this same ground. But as a newbie, I found this stuff fresh and interesting, and I'm still amazed anyone has the patience to sit there and pose six-inch-tall models frame-by-frame for the years it takes to complete a stop-motion animated picture. Call me officially impressed.
Finally, we get two final featurettes on the voice talent, "Voices from the Underground" and "The Voices Behind the Voice." The latter is particularly fascinating, as it is just a straight split-screen montage of the cast recording their dialogue next to the final filmed scene. It is really cool to see how the actors work off each other, and how amazing some of these performers are at creating such vivid characters with just subtle changes in their vocal stylings and delivery.
Rounding out the extras is a music-only (sans vocals) Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track. Though not an audio commentary, it is a great to have what is essentially the film's soundtrack CD for free, and it sounds excellent here in 5.1. And last but not least is the film's theatrical trailer, presented in 480p video and widescreen.
Despite hearing some negative things about 'Corpse Bride' before this review -- namely, that it does not equal Tim Burton's 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' -- I was pleasantly surprised that I felt no such disappointment. 'The Corpse Bride' is a charming, emotional and memorable film that is well worth seeing regardless of age. This Blu-ray release is also a real winner, with a terrific transfer and soundtrack plus tons of extras. A total no-brainer, there is little reason to not pick this one up, even if you already own the film on standard-def DVD.