London — EVERY bride-to-be needs someone to turn to for sage counsel as the big day nears.
But only in "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" could that traditional movie role be played by a maggot that lives in one of the bride's eyes. And only in stop-motion animation could the slimy creature be portrayed by a handmade puppet whose innards are actually filled with Swiss-watch-quality gears.
"He's inspired by Peter Lorre -- an homage to the old horror films," explained co-director Mike Johnson as he inspected the puppet vault at 3 Mills Studio, in an industrial section of East London, where the movie was crafted. "He's kind of a twisted Jiminy Cricket-type voice of wisdom -- when she's troubled, he pops out of her eye socket and offers some advice."
Today's movie audiences are more sophisticated than ever, and accustomed to action-packed films that follow explosion with explosion, but Burton still believes that fans can be lured by a story told at a stately pace using old-fashioned animation techniques developed decades ago.
It is a gamble costing nearly $40 million, but one with a built-in safety net -- the legion of Burton-philes who adored "The Nightmare Before Christmas," his last stop-motion feature, which earned more than $50 million after its 1993 release and is still going strong on DVD. With its cult following, "Nightmare" remains a merchandising bonanza: A video game is being readied for fall release.
Warner Bros.' "Corpse Bride," which opens Friday in Los Angeles, represented a huge time commitment for Burton and his inner circle, who were also busy readying the summer hit "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Production took roughly three years because stop-motion animation is so challenging -- each of the puppets must be carefully moved between frames, a process that taxes the stamina and goodwill of everyone involved.
Like most Tim Burton stories, "Corpse Bride" is a familiar tale with a macabre twist. It's a traditional love triangle, except that one of the protagonists happens to be dead, which proves a considerable inconvenience. Johnny Depp provides the voice for Victor, the timid protagonist whose puppet bears a strong resemblance to Depp, and Helena Bonham Carter, Burton's wife, plays the passionate, love-starved corpse bride.
Much of the visual and thematic power stems from the contrast between the drab, Victorian-era Land of the Living and the more colorful Land of the Dead, with Depp's character caught somewhere in between.
"We are sort of doing a reversal, making the Land of the Living seem much more dead, more muted, a humorless society," said Burton. "And the Land of the Dead is more upbeat and more emotional. It stems from growing up feeling slightly repressed, in a suburban kind of way, with not much emotion shown, and looking at the Day of the Dead in Mexico, where they treat death as part of life instead of treating it as bland and dark. I just preferred other cultures, where they treat it as a celebration of life, not a negative."
Burton had wanted to make a stop-motion follow-up to "Nightmare Before Christmas" for more than a decade but waited for a story that was the right fit with the unusual technique, which has been eclipsed in the eyes of most filmmakers by computer-generated animation.
"I just grew up loving the handmade quality and beauty of stop-motion," he said. "It reminds you that movies are an art form, not a business. It feels like a lost art form, with the beauty of the puppets."
Despite the detailed work required, Burton's crew knows that stop-motion has usually been sniffed at by animation connoisseurs, who prefer the more traditional methods pioneered by Disney or cutting-edge computerized imagery.
"I think computer-generated animation can make really appealing, great movies, but people get so locked in they say other types of animation are dead, and that is upsetting to me," Burton said.
The industry consensus that stop-motion's days are numbered is probably a result of the way the technique was used in its early days, primarily for horror films, said Pete Kozachik, the director of photography on both "Corpse Bride" and "Nightmare Before Christmas."
He said the best-known example of stop-motion is probably the classic "King Kong" sequences, which were pathbreaking at the time.
Kozachik said many older viewers find stop-motion films too strange to enjoy, but that the younger generation raised on MTV is more visually astute and able to judge a stop-motion film as a story that rises or falls on its own merits.
"The process has always been a niche and has not always been well-respected," he said. "It used to be used as the only tool to make giant monsters in horror films. It's got a certain look that is less than perfectly real. There is a weird, surreal, expressionistic quality about it."
The filmmakers believe they have a secret weapon in this regard: the corpse bride herself. Her charisma and sexiness carry the show, Kozachik said.