This is looking like a superb year for Tim Burton. After his long-overdue return to form with his new take on Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, released last month to rave reviews, we are now in for a real treat – a project he has been rumoured to have been working on for more than a decade, ever since the rampant success of his last animated outing, 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
When Burton’s eccentric visual style is allowed to run fully wild, as here, it can really be a joy to behold. His strangely elongated take on human beings, making them almost skeletal, adds an ethereal feel which is wonderfully complemented by the crooked twirls of the background sets. It’s a delightfully unique style in movie-making and ideally suited to the material.
Based on an old Jewish folk story, Johnny Depp voices Vincent – an homage to Burton’s hero Vincent Price as well as to the director’s very first professional film short of the same name – who is a young man with pre-wedding nerves. Trying to make light of his upcoming vows, he places his wedding ring on what he thinks is a stick poking up from the ground, only to discover to his horror that it is in fact the bony finger of a woman killed on her wedding day, who promptly rises from her shallow grave to claim her new husband.
Approaching the film in the same way as he did Nightmare, Burton provides concepts, sketches and a guiding hand while employing a dedicated animator to handle the hugely time-consuming process of day-to-day direction. And there are more similarities to that perennial Christmas/Halloween favourite. Not only is this also animated in stop-motion, a painstakingly manual task in this age of computer graphic short-cuts, Burton has brought back Nightmare’s writer, Caroline Thompson, and his composing companion Danny Elfman, who provides the delightfully atmospheric music.
In fact, this is very nearly a who’s who of Burton collaborators. We’ve already mentioned Johnny Depp, star of such Burton movies as Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Alongside him is Burton’s fiancée Helena Bonham Carter, the mother of his child and star of his movies Planet of the Apes, Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Then there are other Burton regulars like Albert Finney from Big Fish, cult hero Christopher Lee from Sleepy Hollow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Deep Roy from Planet of the Apes, Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and even the veteran 87-year-old Michael Gough, best remembered for his turn as Butler Alfred in Burton’s two Batman films, who – as he did for Sleepy Hollow – has come out of retirement to lend his experience and talent to the production as a personal favour to Burton.
With a typically morbid yet strangely sweet central story, Burton has managed to create a superb follow-up to his 1993 animated classic. But rather than being a mere derivation of The Nightmare Before Christmas, as many feared, this manages to forge a style and atmosphere all its own. It’s a rare thing to see a film essentially about zombie necrophilia that’s aimed at the kids, but Burton has pulled it off with aplomb.