I just watched The Corpse Bride last night - one of the many many films I want to see as background to my thesis - and once again my expectations about Tim Burton were set a bit too high.
I didn't grow up on Burton, haven't ever seen The Nightmare Before Christmas (which most people seem to be intimately familiar with since childhood), but I've always thought his films would resonate with my interest in animation, weird/dark/fantasy worlds, etc. Alice in Wonderland was the first of his films that I actually saw, and I was disappointed. The film was OK in and of itself, but it most certainly did not provide the crazy visuals, dark atmospherics, and general inventiveness I had been led to expect.
I wanted to give Burton a second chance, but I feel the same way about The Corpse Bride. First of all, the animation was pretty uninteresting. The characters were different shapes and sizes and had various cartoonish deformities, but they all moved with the same unreal, unweighted, ungrounded glide. I get that they weren't supposed to look human, of course, but I feel like the animators had their priorities all wrong when they sorted out the human qualities and the puppet- or doll-like qualities. You can make your characters very surreal and weird, but they should maintain some kind of relation to gravity and they should be blessed with some richness in their tics and movements. Hayao Miyazaki is a good example of this - I remember hearing that his animation team visited a dog shelter in order to study the way that Haku's snout should be drawn when he becomes a dragon in Spirited Away. They were creating a creature of fantasy, but it was grounded in the reality of a common dog, so that the viewers can recognize it and believe it.
In terms of animation/design, I also really didn't like the characters' eyes - eyes are SO important, windows to the soul, all that, but these were just white spheres with a black dot. There was no shading, no rough edges, no way that I could see these characters as anything but the products of a computer.
My second qualm with the film is the demystification of the underworld. The more I see, the more I read, and the more I myself write, the more I learn that, simply put, less is more. For example, in Doctor Who, my favorite aliens are the Weeping Angels, and I think a lot of people share that preference - why? Because it's when you can't see them that they can attack you. You can never see them in their true terrifying form. Cue imagination to run wild. In this movie, Burton created one single moment of mystery - when we saw the Bride's hand as both a dead tree branch and a hand at the same time. But even then it was pretty darn clear that it was a hand. And after that, she rose up out of her grave, we saw her head-to-toe, and all the enigma went out of the film. This isn't to say that artists shouldn't try their hand at depicting something like the underworld or the dead. But you can do it in such a way that every revelation creates more mystery. This is especially true of animation, because you can create such amazing atmosphere and such complexity in the imagery. Think about the kitchen in Ratatouille. So much detail! And yet you felt like you'd barely scratched the surface of the place. But Burton definitely did not succeed in capturing any of that richness in the story or the visuals.
Being a kind person, though, I'm going to give him a third chance and watch Edward Scissorhands.