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Gothic Groom 

Fans of The Nightmare Before Christmas are going to rejoice. Viewers who didn't cotton to the odd, old-fashioned, bizarre feel of that 1993 film might want to wait for the new Wallace and Gromit offering for their next stop-motion animated feature -- because Corpse Bride is an obvious follow-up to Nightmare in that it focuses on mostly dead characters.

But you will see more than dead people here. This Warner Bros. film opens in much the same way so many Disney films of the past couple of decades have -- with a song introducing a quaint old town and some of the people in it. The main difference here is that the people aren't even the film's main characters; they're the future in-laws of the supposedly happy couple who are supposedly getting married. And the town, unlike any vibrant Disney creation, is drab and virtually colorless.

The featured players are the to-be-betrothed couple of Victor (voice of Johnny Depp) and Victoria (Emily Watson), who seem to be getting together in an arranged marriage as well as, a while later, the titular character, also known as Emily (Helena Bonham Carter).

Here's how things lead up to this strange sort of menage-a-trois: Victoria is lovely, inside and out, and is an assured young woman. Victor is a nice fellow but also a nervous wreck. And he doesn't need the kind of pressure that's coming from Pastor Galswells (Christopher Lee, whose voice seems to become more booming as he ages) at the wedding rehearsal. So shaken is the shaking Victor, and so much a victim he becomes of his own klutziness (and resulting slapstick comedy) that he runs off to the woods to cool down before trying the rehearsal again.

It's there that he collects himself and tries the whole rehearsal routine, by himself, getting it just right by placing the ring on a twig on the ground. But that's no twig -- that's the not-totally-buried finger of Emily, long dead, a victim of murder most foul, still beautiful, but with part of a cheek gone and some ribs showing through.

The scene of her "coming alive" is a scary one, accompanied by loud gothic music and screeching ravens. When poor frightened Victor awakens from his resulting faint, it's to a bizarre musical number -- of the razzle-dazzle psychedelic type -- that sort of explains what's happened and where he is. It's a place, by the way, that's far more colorful and lively than the world he knows.

And so starts a just about perfect follow-up, in areas both funny and slightly grisly, to Nightmare. It's no fluke that this film is so good, since the first film was sort of a trial run for it. Burton co-directed that one with stop-motion animator Henry Selick (whose funny little creature work most recently appeared in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). And Mike Johnson, with whom Burton co-directed this one, worked as an animator on Nightmare and on James and the Giant Peach, which was directed by Selick.

Although the basics haven't changed much in this type of animation -- move the model, shoot a frame, move the model, shoot a frame -- great strides have been made in the technology surrounding it. So now there's a lot more camera movement, and there's more of an elegance to the characters -- the way they're shaped, they way they move. Of course, in the vision of Burton, there's also a great deal of humor in their looks -- especially in Victoria's mom's hairdo!

Another reason this film is so intriguing is that it offers an emotional and moral dilemma rarely seen in family movies. Victor has unwittingly married the dead Emily while his bride-to-be is waiting for him to return. It's a real challenge to choose which woman to lend your sympathy to. (Not to mention the fact that some jealousy is aroused; Emily rather disparagingly refers to Victoria as "Little Miss Living.")

There are great comic breaks -- both verbal and visual -- found in characters such as a nimble butler and a vociferous town crier. And there's a wonderfully touching moment -- and the only mention of the positive side of an afterlife -- when Victor is reunited with his long-gone dog Scraps -- now literally all bones, but still as frisky as ever.

A solution to the plot's dilemma takes a decidedly gothic twist - one that may take some explaining to very young viewers. But young and old will most likely dig this odd little family tale, which checks in just right at a slim and quick 75 minutes.

Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride; Rated: PG; Directed by Tim Burton and Mike Johnson; Voiced by Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson.

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