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With an exuberant stop-motion fable, director Tim Burton comes back to life

Dearly beloved, we gather today to celebrate the union of Victor and Victoria.

Well, we will just as soon as Victor manages to divorce the undead woman he's accidentally wed. He was rehearsing his vows in an ominous forest and slipped his ring onto a tree branch. Oops. Those skeletal limbs are actually skeletal fingers, and they're attached to a rotting beauty named Emily.

Her hair is soggy, her bosom full, her tight skin a glowing, Ty-D-Bol blue. And with this ring, her love is alive! And so is Tim Burton, whose pleasing sense of the morbid had turned bland in ''Planet of the Apes" and ''Big Fish." The visionary, it seemed, had lost his vision. ''Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" marks its return.

Written with wit by John August, Caroline Thompson, and Pamela Pettler, the movie is a fable jeweled with musical numbers and presented in stop-motion, that bewitching technique that makes inanimate objects appear to be moving. But ''Corpse Bride" is a long way from Georges Melies and ''Gumby," not to mention an exuberant improvement over 1993's ''Nightmare Before Christmas."

Burton only produced that film, but here he codirects, too, the tale of an arranged marriage between Victor Van Dort and Victoria Everglot, whose fey voices belong to Johnny Depp and Emily Watson. Victor's family is tacky new money. Victoria is money so ancient it appears to have died of old age. The Everglots need the union in order to keep their upper crusty lifestyle on life support. Somewhere in the afterlife E.M. Forster is having a chuckle.

The Van Dorts and Everglots live in a land where the sun has neglected to shine. Gray is available in a hundred hues. And everybody has a pallor that resembles a yogurt-covered candy rejected on the grounds that it's not sweet enough. As you'd expect with a Burton production of this nature, the deceased are a more passionate people. Emily, whose chirp is provided by Burton's wife, Helena Bonham Carter, whisks Victor to her home in the land of the dead, and the joint is jumpin'.

The colors pop off the screen as often as Emily's right eye leaps from its socket. And the story of what's brought her so low is told as a big-band vaudeville song. In a likely tribute to bones-happy effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, the skeletons scat and hoof.

Why on earth would Victor want to leave such a vivid and vibrant place? Because he has to get back to his arranged wife-to-be -- even over the dead body of his accidental bride. This betrayal sends Emily's self-esteem into a tailspin that not even the black widow on her shoulder and the maggot in her brain can cure with their pretty duet. (The maggot sounds like Peter Lorre.)

Burton, who directed the film with animator Mike Johnson, has rarely been in brisker, friskier form. This picture is 77 minutes, and while not all of them whiz by, they don't feel laden, either, as they did in ''Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," a sumptuous spectacle that refused to end. ''Corpse Bride" isn't in a hurry to send you on your way; the picture's industrious expressionism alone makes you forget the time. But Burton does seem to have learned from his last movie that prolonged exposure to sweetened antics can leave an audience in a sugar coma.

The breezy assurance displayed in ''Corpse Bride" raises a further challenge for its maker. Can Tim Burton conjure this sort of magic with animate objects?

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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