Pardon Judge Dennis Prince's inappropriate snickering; the title of this picture seems to remind him of an old limerick that begins, "The once was a man named Dave..."
"Young man—learn your vows!"
Perhaps one of the most anticipated titles to be given the Blu-Ray high-definition treatment, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride was burdened to live up to some very, very high hopes. After initial BR releases proved to be afflicted with compression artifacts, filling ardent supporters with the dread that their chosen HD format might not live up to its hype, this early offering from Warner Brothers stepped up to give the much needed sigh of relief. But, as good as the standard definition release looked and sounded, will this Blu-Ray release warrant an upgrade in your Blu world?
Facts of the Case
Matrimony by musket—that's the situation pallid and plaintive Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp, Secret Window) finds himself in, sort of. His meddling parents (voiced by Tracy Ullman, A Dirty Shame, and Paul Whitehouse, Finding Neverland) are anxious to climb the social ladder out of their fish merchant circles, and have found him an eligible bride in neighbor Victoria Everglot (voiced by Emily Watson, The Proposition). The Everglots (voiced by Joanna Lumley, Absolutely Fabulous and Albert Finney, Big Fish) themselves are desperate to see this wedding come to pass, having mishandled their finances to the point of impending poverty and thereby needing the cash flow the Van Dorts would inject. Although Victoria is eager to wed, Victor is introverted and uncertain, unable to recite his vows under the pressure of a rehearsal ceremony presided over by the imposing Pastor Galswells (voiced by Christopher Lee, Sleepy Hollow). Banished to learn his vows before the next day's actual ceremony, Victor staggers through the nearby woods and ultimately delivers his proclamations to perfection. Unexpectedly, his mock professions of love work to raise a mysterious dead bride from the Netherworld, who gleefully accepts Victor's promise and whisks him to the underworld. And while Victora, the Everglots, and the Van Dorts seek out the wayward Victor, the young man himself is panicked to return to the land of the living and escape his unnatural union to the Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).
Perhaps Tim Burton truly is a genius, if not of creative spark than certainly of marketing prowess. Corpse Bride is yet another chapter of Burton's own gothic reality brought to the big screen. To look at this film, you'll see design and narrative elements from practically every other work of his that has gone before. To that end, Burton has been selling the same product over and over again. To most, this would be an irk-raising predilection that would incite an unleashing of unbridled ire upon the unconventional filmmaker. The difference however, is that Burton imparts undeniable charm in his work that subdues such a critical onslaught. Corpse Bride, conceptually, looks every bit the same as The Nightmare Before Christmas, and even leverages many situations from the live-action Beetlejuice. But the sensitivity that's breathed into Burton's dead world of the Corpse Bride works to give it the same sort of naïveté that has endeared Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to generation upon generation of adorers. Here is where Burton succeeds in his ability to deftly re-purpose and repackage his core creative ideas as if he himself were a child still struggling to communicate his unique state of mind; and his appears to be a story the masses will eagerly pay for, time after time.
But this isn't to say Corpse Bride is a rip-off; banish the thought. In fact, the film gains immediate points with its familiar style, one that has shown audience appeal over Burton's celebrated career. And, just like The Nightmare Before Christmas, this picture successfully weaves Burton's macabre settings with the irresistible allure of the stop-motion "puppets" that have fascinated audiences for decades—and still do. For this, credit not only Burton's twisted visions but also the impeccable stop-motion artistry on display here, led by co-Director Mike Johnson, Art Director Nelson Lowry, and a team of impressively skilled animators. The painstaking process of stop-motion has never been questioned in terms of effort required, but has often been scoffed at a bit for its quirky results. Here, thanks to a perfect blending of the technique, advanced puppetry, and an incredible photographic style from DP Pete Kozachik, Corpse Bride emerges as a work of art that is beautiful to behold. Burton, therefore, scores big again with his usual material…and that's just fine.
If you're fond of Corpse Bride, and have been since the theatrical and DVD releases of the film, then the matter now turns to that of this particular Blu-Ray release and whether it possesses the qualities that merit another purchase of Burton's work. In short—yes, it does. Warner Brothers wisely utilized the VC-1 codec when mastering this 1080p resolution high-definition disc and the results are simply stunning. Truly a bona-fide "reference quality" presentation, the image is razor sharp with details that simply must be seen to be believed. The textual surfaces of Ian Mackinnon's exquisite puppets are realistically rendered in a way that you believe you could reach forward and touch them. The same can be said for the excellent sets, giving to reason to believe you could touch the icy surface of the frozen river and it would feel smooth as glass. The only element that prevents the image from appearing fully dimensional at all times is the muted color scheme utilized for the Land of the Living sequences, those being veiled in a cold blue filter, thereby softening the potential "pop" that the Land of the Dead sequences inherit from the livelier lighting design. This is nitpicky, to be certain, because Corpse Bride is among the best high-definition transfers I've seen. But in regards to the coloring, this transfer delivers mightily with a well-saturated palette that, as vibrant as it can sometimes be, never shows hints of ringing or blooming. And those wary of purported reports of the "grainy nature" of the Blu-Ray format will be pleased to know there is no grain present here.
To be fair, I must note that Corpse Bride certainly benefits from the controlled environment inherent to a stop-motion animation setting. Live action films naturally contend to control the unpredictability of their organic environments, while CGI projects must work to seamlessly blend their ultra-slick compositions with live action elements; in both situations, high-definition transfers can call attention the inconsistencies often suppressed by lower-resolution masters. This is the good and the bad of the advanced format and, therefore, the new challenge to filmmakers and DVD authors who can no longer rely upon technical imprecision to mask content imperfections.
As far as the audio goes, well, this disc again scores top notch with the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX mix (delivered at 640 kbps). From start to finish, the entire soundstage is completely alive with action. Credit the sound designer, Martin Cantwell, for making the aural aspects as characteristic as the puppets themselves. Here, you'll enjoy an experience that sways the audio from side to side, back to front, in a way that suits the exaggerated images perfectly. Therefore, expect the clever use of crescendo, echo, and diffusion to make deepest use of the surround channels, succeeding in stretching your soundstage beyond the confines of your fixed speaker locations. The dialog is well represented, mostly within the center channel yet as frequently redirected around the room, and never becomes difficult to interpret (the sole exception might be the lyrics of the rollicking musical number, "Remains of the Day," which is a bit difficult to discern the first time through). All told, this Blu-Ray disc represents the format in stellar fashion and deserves a look and listen if you've yet to indulge yourself.
As for extras, you'll find the same collection of goodies that graced the two-disc DVD edition (the details, therefore, won't be repeated here). But, even though these bonus features—and they're all quite good, especially the isolated score from Danny Elfman—are part and parcel the same as the previous release, it's good that they're included to make this Blu-Ray edition a complete offering by its own right. The missed opportunity, of course, is the lack of any interactive features that have been advertised as the difference maker inherent to the new HD formats. Nonetheless, that shouldn't be considered a fatal omission here.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If anyone has reason to oppose the forwarding of the high-definition formats, either Blu-Ray or HD-DVD, let them screen Corpse Bride first, then speak or forever hold their peace.
It is hereby pronounced that Corpse Bride makes for the perfect union of fantasy creativity, stop-motion animation, and high-definition technology. All present are highly urged to see this disc for themselves, while they still inhabit this Land of the Living.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Featurette: Inside the Two Worlds
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