For anyone who wondered why Tim Burton's heart didn't seem to be in his recent big-budget remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the answer lies in the cult auteur's second 2005 offering, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride. Where Charlie felt like a movie that Burton was hired to make, Corpse Bride feels like a movie Burton really wanted to make. (In fact, the two films were shot around the same time, with the director regularly jumping between both sets.) A sequel in spirit to his beloved 1993 stop-motion animated feature The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride is filled with the playfully dark imagination that first made Burton a star, but has surfaced only occasionally in his recent work. Clearly he finds something liberating in the stop-motion process-this is the most pure fun he's allowed himself to have in years. His enjoyment proves infectious; parents and children alike will be taken with this Corpse Bride, provided they don't mind their animated features served with a healthy dose of the macabre.

If Nightmare was Burton's version of a heartwarming Christmas story, Corpse Bride is his spin on a '30s horror picture (a genre he's tackled before, most memorably in his 1984 short Frankenweenie). In a small English village located on the edge of a dark forest, Nell and William Van Dort (voiced by Joanna Lumley and Paul Whitehouse) are preparing for the wedding of their only son Vincent (Johnny Depp) to Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), the only daughter of the prominent Everglot family. To say the lad is nervous would be an understatement; he can barely speak the word "marriage" without stuttering. Part of the problem is that he has never actually met his bride-to-be, as their parents arranged the match. When the pair finally lay eyes on each other at the wedding rehearsal, they both like what they see, but Vincent's nerves once again get in the way. In addition to mangling his vows, he inadvertently sets his future mother-in-law's dress on fire. Fed up with this bumbling groom, the imposing pastor (Christopher Lee) banishes him until he can pull himself together. So Vincent wanders off into the forest, practicing his vows all the way. After several false starts, he finally recites them perfectly and then, with a flourish, slips the wedding ring onto an exposed tree root. The next instant, a woman clad in a wedding dress rises up out of the ground and agrees to be his wife. The only problem? Well, she's kinda, sorta...dead.

Up until this point, Corpse Bride is rather tame visually, particularly compared to the wild musical number that opened Nightmare. But then Vincent follows his new bride Emily (Helena Bonham Carter) into the Land of the Dead and Burton's imagination kicks into high gear. There are dancing skeletons, severed heads held aloft by roaches, and a talking worm that looks and sounds an awful lot like Peter Lorre. Despite the wonders (er...horrors?) he sees before him, Vincent is eager to return above ground to his original betrothed, who in the meantime has been promised to a sinister interloper named Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant). Try as he might, however, he finds that he can't simply ditch Emily. Not only is she keeping a close eye on him, but he also wants to honor the vow he made while standing above her grave-even if it was accidental. Plus, the more time he spends with her, the more he grows to care for her...

Clocking in at a swift 71 minutes, Corpse Bride is one of those increasingly rare films that are actually too short. Granted, Nightmare is only five minutes longer, but that film's world feels more complete. Corpse Bride leaves you wanting more and not entirely in a good way. Vincent's change of heart regarding Emily is rushed and the subplot involving Bittern isn't satisfactorily introduced or resolved. And while the characters and sets are beautifully designed, they just aren't as instantly memorable as Jack Skellington and his Halloweentown homestead. Nevertheless, this is a delightful family film that features lots of laughs, a sweet-but decidedly not saccharine-romance, and some great musical numbers courtesy of Burton's longtime collaborator, Danny Elfman. Above all, it is a potent reminder of how dazzling stop-motion animation can be; the last shot in particular ranks as one of the best images Burton has ever conjured up in either live-action or animation. Between Tim Burton's Corpse Bride and the upcoming Wallace & Gromit feature, this overlooked art form may experience a well-deserved renaissance on the big screen.

-Ethan Alter