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Till death do us part Tim Burton's macabre marriage fantasy gives new meaning to those revered wedding vows

A girl just never knows when the right guy will come along.

Look at Tim Burton's "The Corpse Bride." There she is, safely dead for years with her very own talking maggot emerging from her eye socket every now and then, when handsome, splendid (and very much alive) Victor shows up quite suddenly and slips a wedding ring on the skeletal remains of her left hand.

You and I might immediately understand that it was all a terrible mistake. Death kind of disqualifies you from getting married but, hey, that's not how our non-blushing corpse sees it. It's the dream of a lifetime -- a death-time, too.

It isn't how the merrily macabre Tim Burton sees it either which makes "The Corpse Bride" a ghoulish all-age delight (no more disturbing for school-agers, really, than a rousing chorus of "the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out").

Oh yeah, before I forget: it's a musical. And an animated feature in the wondrously old-fashioned (and labor-intensive) stop-time process.

It's a fact of life that when children are first informed about some of the realities of death, they immediately seize on the yuck of it all, rather than the loss; they find that the easiest part to understand and make kid jokes about. They turn death into the yuckier suburb of life.

Well, so does Tim Burton in "The Corpse Bride." But that's not all, or even close. In "The Corpse Bride," the scenes among the living are filmed in gloomy and socially constrictive black and white. Everything among the dead is filmed in, uhhh, living color.

That will pretty much give you an idea how Burton sees the social whirl of the living in "The Corpse Bride." The dead -- having been released from all our dreary rules of social propriety -- are seen to be having a rather good time of it, all things considered. They dance, they play jazz and party down. Death, as a realm in Tim Burton's view, is pretty much like a theme park -- Deadworld.

Emily, the corpse bride, is a rather splendid specimen of Tim Burton womanhood -- buxom, wasp-waisted, beautiful and thoroughly engaging company. Of course, she's also in an initial stage of moderate decomposition which might certainly give most living suitors pause. But then she knows that when a guy slips a ring on her finger, it's meaningful, you know?

So what if Victor was only rehearsing?

He was, of course, all set to marry the very much living Victoria (you've got to love the names, a la Blake Edwards' classic gender-switch comedy). It was an arranged marriage, which means Victoria's snobbish parents -- fortune-hunting, impoverished aristocrats -- need her desperately to get out of the family's financial hole. All of that isn't exactly calculated to make their daughter happy ("our daughter with a face/like an otter in disgrace," sing her parents).

But she does love Victor after all. And he loves her.

You can imagine the scandal, then, when it's revealed that the night before the scheduled nuptials, he has somehow gotten himself betrothed to a corpse.

In the grand finale, everyone comes together, living and dead, spiders with six eyes, you name it, for an exquisitely droll zombie jamboree.

It's good fun -- not entirely so for all sequences in the short, short (77 minute) film but, well, you have to give Burton and Co. time to set up narrative shop, after all.

I'm with it all the way when we finally get a chance to party down with the dead in living color.

That's where, for instance, living fiance Victor is suddenly reunited with the skeleton of his long-dead pet dog.

You can't imagine how happy Victor is to see him, even if there's no flesh or fur on his wagging little skeleton tail. "Roll over," he says to his adoring little dog. "Play dead."

The movie is full of giddy little stuff like that.

As is usual, Burton brought his friends along to voice the parts -- Johnny Depp as Victor, Helena Bonham Carter as Emily, Emily Watson as Victoria, Albert Finney as Victoria's wretched money-grubbing Dad.

In truth, I had a much better time at "The Corpse Bride" than I did at Burton's previous stop-time animated beauty "The Nightmare Before Christmas," which seemed so holiday bound that it was a kind of seasonal exploitation film (its holiday, of course, wasn't Christmas but rather Halloween, the new Big Money run-up to Christmas in commerce's annual year-end blowout).

"The Corpse Bride," on the other hand, exists only for the pleasure of Burton and friends' happy and whimsically gruesome high-jinks.

Which is more than good enough for me.

The Corpse Bride

Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson and Albert Finney voice the characters in Tim Burton's macabre musical animation about a living fiance who accidentally gets engaged to a beautiful dead girl. Rated PG, opening Friday in area theaters.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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