Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride is aptly named.
While far from perfect, it’s probably the purest example
of the director’s vision in recent years. Freed from
the pressure of having to make a summer blockbuster or remain
faithful to source material, Burton and his co-director Mike
Johnson (along with an extremely talented cast and crew) have
crafted a beautiful and bittersweet fairytale.
Taking a Jewish folk tale as its inspiration, the film tells
the story of a touching romantic triangle between the nervous
Victor, the downtrodden Victoria, and the Corpse Bride herself,
Emily. Victoria’s parents only want her married so they
can get to Victor’s money, while Victor himself doesn’t
seem ready for marriage, as we witness in an amusing rehearsal
scene where he almost burns the house down. When Victor goes
into the woods to practice his vows and inadvertently proposes
to the Corpse Bride, he finds himself whisked away with her
to the land of the dead. Victor is terrified at first and
just wants to escape, but, as with Halloweentown in The
Nightmare Before Christmas, the ghoulish-looking denizens
are actually far more lively and loveable than the people
in our world. The fast moving plot finds Victor gradually
overcoming his fear and falling for the Corpse Bride, while
Victoria, believing she has been abandoned, is forced to marry
the vile Barkis. The land of the living and the dead come
together, and it’s surprisingly touching to see the
fear of the living give way to joy at being briefly reunited
with their dead loved ones. The Corpse Bride finally finds
peace and her murder is avenged (the identity of her murder
probably won’t be a surprise to most people). The resolution
of the love triangle may not please everyone, but the final
scene manages to be more genuinely moving than the rather
saccharine ending to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
There’s nothing too surprising or deep about the story,
though it’s refreshing to see a love triangle where
both women are decent and arguably more capable than the hero.
Corpse Bride may not offer anything really new, but
it’s a simple story well told, with all the magic that
Burton brings to his best movies. While there are plenty of
amusing moments in the film (including an unexpected Gone
With the Wind reference), the biggest surprise is that
it’s played straight for the most part, with the puppet
characters given almost as much weight as flesh and blood
actors. There’s also some wonderfully romantic moments,
such as when Victor and the Corpse Bride play the piano together.
Although Corpse Bride is paced well for the most
part, some people might feel shortchanged by the running time.
The film is 76 minutes long, and it feels even shorter. It’s
disappointing that Warner Bros. didn’t take advantage
of this and attach a short animation to the beginning of the
film, as Disney did with Nightmare. Aside from that
small complaint, and the lack of development of some of the
characters, the film is a fine achievement in most areas.
The voice work is very good across the board. Depp plays a
nervous Englishman almost as well as Hugh Grant. Carter is
even better as the Corpse Bride, bringing real emotion to
the character. Watson is very sweet as Victoria. Christopher
Lee’s thunderous voice is put to great effect as an
impatient Pastor, and it’s wonderful to hear another
Burton regular, 87-year old Michael Gough, voicing Elder Gutknecht,
a wise inhabitant of the underworld. On the villainous side,
Grant’s Barkis, along with Albert Finney and Joanna
Lumley as Mr. and Mrs. Everglot, are all superbly hiss-able.
There’s also amusing voice work by British comedians
such as Paul Whitehouse (from The Fast Show, one
of Depp’s favorite TV series) and Tracy Ullman. Last
but not least, Danny Elfman provides the voice for the singing
Visually the film is nearly flawless. The contrast between
the grey, drab world of the living and the colorful land of
the dead works superbly. The stop motion work is as good as
any I’ve seen in classic Ray Harryhausen films (watch
for an amusing reference to him with the name of the piano
Victor is seen playing near the beginning), with only the
tiniest of CG enhancements to bring it into the 21st Century.
The expressions on the characters are so lifelike it’s
easy to forget you’re watching puppets.
Danny Elfman provides a superb score and his songs, while
not as immediately catchy as those in Nightmare,
serve the story well.
Of course, comparisons to Nightmare will be unavoidable,
and not just musically. Corpse Bride isn’t
as innovative (the stop motion animation has evolved to a
point where you almost forget it’s stop motion), but
it should be judged on its own merits. It’s a worthy
follow-up to that 1993 classic and while it didn't blow me
away on the first screening, I get the feeling that it’s
the kind of film that will improve with repeat viewings, ensuring
a long afterlife.
Tim Burton's Corpse Bride is now available to order on Region 1 DVD!
Arran McDermott 2005