Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

Tim Burton’s second stop-motion feature film bears some obvious similarities to THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, but it has almost as much in common with BEETLEJUICE (not to mention touches of EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and the excellent short subject VINCENT). Not only does the story involve a “newly-dead” couple in a bizarre afterlife, populated by characters whose appearance betrays comically obvious evidence of how they departed the land of the living, there is also a BEETLEJUICE-type of manic energy — a sense of imagination run riot that makes the film always worth watching, even when the story loses traction.
As a technical achievement, CORPSE BRIDE goes far beyond NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. The stop-motion work is breath-taking in its ability to imbue life into the characters; the expressive capability of the armature puppets puts the vast majority of computer-generated animation to shame (even Pixar, the king of all things CGI, has never made human characters half this impressive).
Moreover, the film is stylistic tour-de-force of amazing camera angles and intricately choreogrpahed movements. There is no proscenium arch staging here; scenes play out in dynamic fashion that makes the action come alive, and the fabulously detailed sets and costumes create a world far more vivid and three-dimensional than scene in any other form of animation.
And in a welcome departure from the SHREK films, CORPSE BRIDE is not afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve. There is plenty of humor but none of the knowing, almost condescending winking to the audience that says, “We all know this is fairytale nonsense, so let’s just smirk and have a ball.”
At the center of its story is the titular, tragic character (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter) who was murdered while waiting for her fiance to elope with her. In Victor (Johnny Depp), she finds a replacement, but like Sally in NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS she has trouble making him appreciate her charms (there are other similarities, such as her detachable limbs, which work independently).
Unfortunately, once the premise is set up, the film doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with it; it’s almost as if the script couldn’t figure out what story to tell. The initial idea seems to be that Victor is being forced into an arranged marriage with a live woman named Victoria; the monochromatic look of of the land of the living makes this prospect resemble an extremely unpleasant living death. The passionate love of the Corpse Bride, coupled with the (literally) colorful characters in the world of the dead, makes marriage to her seem far more appealing, but the film fails to follow through on this idea.
The basic problem seems to be a failure of nerve. The Corpse Bride, whose name is Emily, is obviously fashioned convey a ghoulishly erotic allure, with her beguiling eyes, thin waist and half-exposed breasts (even the lack of flesh on some of her bones only emphasizes how slim her figure is). Yet the film shies away from the implications. Although inspired by a Russian folktale, the story is pure Victorian Gothic in its ambience, an essential requirement of which was always that the heroes and heroines be so pure and virtuous that they were often insufferably dull as well. Contrasted with these lifeless characters was the darkly hypnotic dynamism of the villains/monsters (think of Erik in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA or the Count in DRACULA). Of course, virtue always won out in the end, but the element that made the stories truly interesting was the flirtation with the dark side.
From Tim Burton, we expect a little bit more than flirtation. Like David Lynch (but with much more colorful approach and commercial appeal), Burton is a director who views the bizarre and the macabre not with disgust but with eager fascination. His “monsters” (with a few exceptions) are usually demented artists and outsiders, yearning for love and acceptance, who only seem monstrous when viewed through a lens of ignorance and misunderstanding. Emily fits this mold to perfection, and it would have been dramatically satisfying to portray the process by which Victor overcomes his initial alarm and learns to embrace love from beyond the grave, turning his back on conventional normality in favor of something new and exciting.
Alas, it is not to be. Instead, Victor falls in love with Victoria, his living fiance on first sight; consequently, Emily is reduced to being a fly in the ointment, an impediment on the way to this happy marriage to a living bride. This story could have worked too, if Emily had been a genuine threat, a monstrous succubus from beyond the grave, tempting Victor away from marital bliss in favor of a lust-filled damnation, but the character is too sad and tragic to fill the role of monster.
Instead, the plot turns into Victor’s quandary about being forced to disappoint one of the women who loves him. In a way, the situation is not that different from the third act of of the Japanese classic UGETSU, in which a wayward husband finds himself enthalled by a beguiling female ghost. The difference is that Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 classic is a 94-minute, adult-themed film that benefited from its complexity — but CORPSE BRIDE is a 64-minute fairy tale, which would have benefited from a fairy tale simplicity to its storytelling. With Victor truly in love with his Victoria, but sympathetic to Emily’s plight, the tug-of-war inherent in his situation sends the story tacking back and forth, and it requires some fairly manipulative and convenient twists to provide conventionally satisfactory solution.
The weakness in the plotting is easy enough to tolerate as long as the visuals and Elfman’s songs carry the film. The Corpse Bride’s resurrection from the grave is a stunningly realized sequence that makes the film worth seeing all on its own (in fact, the incredibly smooth animation of wedding veil is enough to make the film worth seeing), and her sad refrain upon realizing that Victor does not love her (“I know that I am dead, yet I have more tears to shed”) is genuinely moving.
But surprisingly, some of the songs fall flat (the opening number has a dirge-like pace that almost stops the film before it can start — it’s all recitative-style exposition, unlike the blissful arias that launched NIGHTMARE). And the script’s attempts at humor (including a Peter Lorre-inspired maggot filling in the Jiminy Cricket role) often elicit groans rather than chuckles.
The great thing about NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS was that it set the standard; it had no immediate precedent by which it could be judged. CORPSE BRIDE bears the burden of having to live up to that earlier achievement. On a technical level, it more than meets — and even surpasses — expectations. But on an overall artistic level, it is no match for its illustrious predecessor. It’s dark, demented, and fun, but it’s more of an extremely clever trick than a truly delightful treat.

SECOND VIEWING

A second viewing of the film helped me overcome my initial disappointment and somewhat revise my opinion. The story still the wanders back and forth a bit, but the heart-felt emotion invested into the plight of the lead characters — Victor, Victoria, and especially Emily the Corpse Bride — helps offset the structural weaknesses.

TRIVIA

In an early scene, Victor sits down at a piano in his fiance’s home and begins to play while the camera performs a graceful, sweeping arc around him (worthy of any live-action Hollywood musical). When we finally get a closeup look at his hands on the keyboard, we see that the brand name on the piano is not Steinway but “Harryhausen.” Ray Harryhausen, of course, is the maestro behind the stop-motion effects for such classic fantasy films as THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.

Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005). Directed by Tim Burton, Mike Johnson. Written by John August and Pamela Pettler and Caroline Thompson, story and characters by Tim Burton. Music and songs by Danny Elfman, additional lyrics by John August. Voices: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Tracey Ulman, Paul Whitehouse, Joanna Lumley, Albert Finney, Richard E. Grant, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Jane Horrocks, Enn Reitel, Deep Roy, Danny Elfman.

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Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski