In a tiny grey European village, the Van Dort and Everglot families are preparing for an upcoming wedding. William and Nell Van Dort's son (Victor) has been arranged to marry Finis and Maudeline Everglot's daughter Victoria. The Van Dorts, who are extremely wealthy thanks to their fish business but still considered low-born will gain status from the match, while the Everglots, who are aristocrats but have lost all their money, will gain much-needed wealth, as detailed in their song "According to Plan." Victor and Victoria are quite nervous about the upcoming nupitals, as neither of them have ever spoken to each other. Fortunately, they are granted a chance to meet before the rehearsal, thanks to Victor lingering at a piano in the front hall, and they find that they instantly like each other.
The rehearsal, however, does not go well at all. Victor simply cannot remember the vows necessary for the ceremony. The arrival of a mysterious Lord Barkis Bittern does not help matters. After an incident where Victor drops the ring and, in retrieving it, sets fire to Maudeline's dress, Pastor Galswells stops the rehearsal and banishes Victor with the demand that he learn his vows. A humilated Victor flees to the woods, where he desperately practices. Finally, he conquers his nerves and says them perfectly, slipping the ring onto a hand-like root sticking out of the ground.
Except that the hand-like root proves to be an actual skeletal hand, which promptly grabs him. As Victor rips himself free, the ground before him splits, and the Corpse Bride emerges, believing herself married to Victor. Victor bolts for the bridge back to his home, but the Corpse Bride manages to catch up with him and kisses him, causing him to pass out.
When he revives, he finds himself in the Land of the Dead, in the Ball & Socket Pub, surrounded by the Corpse Bride and her friends. As his initial shock wears off, he demands to know what exactly has happened and who the Corpse Bride is. The local entertainer Bonejangles then sings "Remains of the Day," which explains that the Corpse Bride was a young woman who fell in love with a poor drifter and agreed to elope with him after her father disapproved of the match. However, the drifter instead killed her and stole the money and jewels she had brought with her as her dowry. After her death, the Corpse Bride vowed to wait for her true love to come and set her free by asking for her hand in marriage -- something she believes has happened with Victor. A frightened Victor manages, after a few tries, to escape from the pub.
In the Land of the Living, Lord Barkis has the Town Crier tell the Van Dorts and Everglots that Victor was seen on the bridge with a mystery woman, whom he disappeared with. The Everglots are scandalized, while the horrified Van Dorts beg for a chance to find their wayward son. The Everglots give them until dawn to locate Victor.
Back in the Land of the Dead, Victor is again located by the Corpse Bride. She reveals her name is Emily and that she has a present for him -- the skeleton of his dead dog, Scraps. Victor is very pleased to see his former pet and begins to warm a little to Emily. However, his main goal is still to return to the Land of the Living. A mention of his mother in their conversation causes him to suggest that he and Emily visit them so he can return and get help. Emily, unaware of Victor's true intentions, takes him to see Elder Gutknecht. Although initially reluctant, Elder Gutknecht eventually agrees to send them above and casts the Ukranian Haunting Spell on them, telling them they'll return when they say "hopscotch."
In the World of the Living, Victor gets Emily to wait for him in the woods while he returns to town. After hearing the Everglots want to strangle him, he climbs up to Victoria's room. Victoria welcomes him warmly, and he admits to her that he's in love with her. She returns his affections, but as they're about to kiss, Emily appears on the balcony, having been convinced by her friend Maggot to go catch up with Victor and see why he's taking so long. Both girls are stunned to see one another, and an angry Emily drags Victor back to the Land of the Dead with her. Emily and Victor argue, and Victor blurts out that he would never marry Emily. Heartbroken, Emily retires to the company of Maggot and her other friend Black Widow (a black widow spider). The three sing "Tears To Shed," where Maggot and Black Widow try to convince Emily of her superiority to the living girl and Emily bemoans her state.
In the Land of the Living, Victoria tells her mother about Victor's corpse bride, but is not believed. After being locked into her room, she escapes over her balcony and attempts to get help from Pastor Galswells. Pastor Galswells simply believes her mad and drags her back home. As the Everglots wonder what they'll do, Lord Barkis comes in and subtly presents himself as an alternate suitor. The Everglots seize upon this chance, despite Victoria's protests, and Victoria is married to Lord Barkis. Unbeknownst to any of them, however, Barkis is merely marrying Victoria to get at her fortune (which he mistakenly believes is still available) and plans to kill her.
In the Land of the Dead, a pentient Victor seeks out Emily with the help of Scraps and apologizes to her for his deceit. She eventually forgives him as they play a duet together. The tender moment is interrupted by a new arrival -- Mayhew, the Van Dorts' carriage driver, recently deceased. Victor, asking for news, is stunned to discover Victoria's impending marriage. Heartbroken, he wanders away into the streets.
Emily, concerned, solicits help from her cook friend Mrs. Plum about Victor's behavior before being interrupted by Elder Gutknecht and Maggot. Elder Gutknecht informs Emily that her marriage to Victor is not truly valid -- the vows only bind a couple until "death do you part," and Emily's already being dead means that they are already parted. In order for Emily and Victor to have a proper marriage, Victor would have to repeat his vows in the Land of the Living and then kill himself with the poisonous Wine of Ages. Emily, horrified, says she could never ask that of him -- but Victor, having overheard everything, tells her he'll do it. He gathers the other dead so that they can have a proper party upstairs, and everyone prepares while singing "The Wedding Song."
In the Land of the Living, Lord Barkis and Victoria are having their wedding reception when the dead arrive and frighten everyone. After the confusion that follows, Barkis demands Victoria gather up whatever money she can before they leave. Victoria reveals to Barkis the Everglots have no money, and that her marriage to him was supposed to provide them with some. She escapes her shocked husband and goes out into the street to discover the living have recognized their loved ones among the dead, and that everyone is now peaceably heading to the church.
At the church, Victor and Emily begin saying their vows. Emily, however, sees Victoria hiding behind a nearby pillar, and realizes that she cannot taken Victoria's chance at happiness away from her. She stops Victor from drinking the poison and reunites him with Victoria. Lord Barkis choses that moment to reappear, though, and points out that Victoria is still his wife. A stunned Emily recognizes him as her former fiance and murderer, enraging everyone. Barkis attempts to abduct Victoria with a stolen sword, but is stopped by Scraps. He and Victor then duel, Victor wielding a fork thrown to him by Mrs. Plum. Victor manages to get the better of Barkis a few times, but is eventually defeated. Emily, however, prevents Barkis from killing Victor (taking a sword blow meant for him) and orders Barkis out of the church. Barkis refuses to go without making a mocking toast to her. The angry dead are held back by Elder Gutknecht, observing that they cannot harm the living. However, the substance Barkis uses to make the toast is the Wine of Ages, and shortly after drinking it, he dies. The dead, now free to extract vengeance, gladly do so.
Victor and Victoria are happy to be reunited and free of Barkis, but Victor tells Emily that he made a promise to her. Emily tells him that he has indeed set her free and that she will do the same for him, returning his ring. Free of her need to get married, she walks to the doors of the church, throws her bouquet to Victoria, then dissolves into a rabble of butterflies.