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, '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 '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 'The 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, 'The 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.
'Corpse Bride' generated some controversy when it hit Blu-ray a few weeks ago, as it was not only the first stop-motion animated film to hit a next-gen high-def format, but it also marked the first time Warner had released a title on Blu-ray with no HD DVD counterpart announced. I for one never had much doubt that the studio would get around to releasing 'Corpse Bride' on HD DVD in due time, but regardless, the Blu-ray certainly looked terrific. But being as format-agnostic as I can, this HD DVD easily matches it. Warner has again utilized the identical master for both versions, as well as presenting each in 1080p/VC-1 video, and the results are a dead heat.
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.
Lastly, there has been some controversy on the web recently about 'The Corpse Bride,' after some consumer reviews reported serious compression artifacts on the Blu-ray release, namely posterization on color gradations, dissolves and other optical effects. However, I found no such problems when I first reviewed that disc, just as I've found none again here. However, I did put both the Blu-ray and the HD DVD discs through their paces twice more, both on my new Sony KDS-R70XBR2 LCoS 1080p display (which will soon replace my HP Pavilion as my reference monitor), as well as a Panasonic plasma. I did detect some slight posterization, particularly the film's opening logo, on the plasma, though the Sony looked smooth as could be. I suspect the reported posterization problems are more than likely caused by a monitor's inability to reproduce subtle color gradations. But that's a hardware issue, not software. And on a film with such challenging color reproduction as 'Corpse Bride,' I am not surprised different monitors would produce such different results. Nevertheless, I can't knock either the Blu-ray or the HD DVD release of 'Corpse Bride' for that.
A great transfer gets a great soundtrack, too. I was quite impressed with the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX track on the Blu-ray release, which gets mirrored here on HD DVD in Dolby Digital-Plus. (Note that the soundtracks on both formats are encoded at the exact same bitrate of 640kbps, as the Blu-ray spec doesn't require the use of Dolby Digital-Plus designator except for recordings that utilize more than six channels, such as a 6.1 or 7.1 mix.)
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 'The Corpse Bride' and you won't be disappointed.
'Corpse Bride' on HD DVD is predictably packed with extras, containing all of the same supplements that were included on the Blu-ray and standard-def releases. It's an all-around great package of goodies that's pretty comprehensive and 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' Pre-production 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 track (sans vocals) in Dolby Digital-Plus EX Surround. Though not an audio commentary, it is a great to have what is essentially a soundtrack CD for free, and it is on part in terms of fidelity to the film proper. And last but not least is the film's theatrical trailer, presented in 480p video and widescreen.
Rounding out the weak package of supplements is the film's theatrical trailer.
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. After debuting on Blu-ray a few weeks back, the film impresses just as equally on HD DVD. A winner across the board with a great transfer, soundtrack and plenty of extras, there is little reason to not pick this one up -- even if you already own the film on standard-def DVD.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.