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Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 16 September 2005
Amazing but true fact: Tim Burton made “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in the midst of also making “Corpse Bride.” It’s astonishing that a director could divide his focus this way and still turn out two very agreeable, entertaining movies. Granted, he co-directed “Corpse Bride” (which may more properly be called “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride”), and it’s entirely in stop motion, like “A Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach” before it. Still, Burton seems to do his best when things get complicated.

“Corpse Bride” is also, wonder of wonders, a musical, with lively and touching songs by Danny Elfman, who also performs the role of tap-dancing skeleton Bonejangles. At times, the sound recording is muffled so—unlike musicals from Hollywood’s golden age—it’s often hard to understand the lyrics. But what you’re watching is so lively and interesting that mere coherence can happily be ignored.

The movie’s design is similar to that of “Nightmare” and Burton’s short “Vincent” (about a morbid little boy who wanted to grow up to be Vincent Price): slender, angular figures, limited color palettes and, of course, the cheerfully ghastly subject matter.

In a small city, Victor Van Dort (voice of Johnny Depp) is to marry Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson) on the morrow, even though they’ve never met. His social-climbing parents (Tracey Ullman, Paul Whitehouse) are looking forward to the match; so are Victoria’s parents (Joanna Lumley, Albert Finney) for very different reasons: although they’re at the pinnacle of the social ladder, they’re stone broke, and the Van Dorts are successful fishmongers. Mysterious, self-absorbed stranger Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant) drops in, keeping an eye on things.

At the Everglot mansion, the nervous Victor sits at a piano (brand name: “Harryhausen”) and fidgets. When Victoria arrives, he’s surprised—and even more nervous—to discover he’s attracted to her. At a wedding rehearsal, presided over by the pompous, thunderous Pastor Galswells (the always busy Christopher Lee), Victor can’t remember his wedding vows, even though he is looking forward to marrying the practical, forthright but winsome Victoria.
He wanders alone in the forest, trying to memorize his vows; he puts the wedding ring on a stick and concludes the vows. To his shock the stick isn’t a stick—it’s the skeletal hand of a dead woman who erupts from the ground to declare them married. Though dead—one eye has the annoying habit of popping out—she’s sweet, charmed by Victor, and reveals her name is Emily (Helena Bonham Carter). The horrified Victor is informed by the romantic Emily that he must live with her in the Land of the Dead.

In the Land of the Dead, a song tells him Emily’s tragic past: she was betrothed to a man who abandoned her at the altar, and died of grief. Now, however, her life—or something—is complete since she has a husband. But while Victor learns to like Emily—they bond over a piano duet—he realizes his place is in the land of the Living, at Victoria’s side.

Of course, things get complicated before they are straightened out happily. Events involve a magic spell, Barkis Bittern, and the en masse visit by the dead to the Land of the Living. The last image mingles joy and loss, engendering emotions rarely linked in a movie.

At 76 minutes, the movie is fresh and breezy throughout, though not as robust and rich as “A Nightmare Before Christmas.” That movie went new places; where “Corpse Bride” goes is more familiar, less elaborate, less wondrous. But even though “Corpse Bride” is considerably more morbid in its setting than “Nightmare,” it approaches all these potentially horrifying visions and ideas—including a maggot that talks like Peter Lorre and lives in Emily’s eye socket—with the same exuberant acceptance. A child told the story might be frightened, but seeing the story acted out in this movie is likely to delight most children—and adults. It’s not a “kids’ movie,” it’s for everyone.

The production design by Alex McDowell (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Terminal”) is uncluttered and elegant, very much in Burton’s own drawing style. Figures are generally tall and very slender, or squat and very pudgy, but generally the designs are unified and clean. The Land of the Living is rendered in grays, mauves and pale blues; the Land of the Dead is livelier, more cramped and much more colorful. The people in the Land of the Living, as the first sequence demonstrates, live their lives to the beat of a clock; in the Land of the Dead, the inhabitants bop about in jazzy rhythms. Bonejangle’s big number is as colorful and almost as inventive as the “Pink Elephants on Parade” in “Dumbo.”
Nobody in the Land of the Dead seems particularly unhappy to be dead, even though they’re in varying stages of decomposition. But they are Dead, and despite the friendly, colorful inhabitants of this Land, we understand why Victor wants to return to the Land of the Living.

He’s given many incentives to stay among the Dead; Emily presents him with a box of bones which reassemble into the skeleton of Scraps, once Victor’s beloved dog. The animation of Scraps’ skeleton is especially expressive and energetic; in just a few shots, Scraps becomes one of the most endearing and (despite being dead) lively characters in the movie.

But everyone—and everything—is endowed with its own life and personality. In stop-motion animation, the jointed figures are moved one frame of film at a time; projected at 24 frames a second, they appear to be moving. You can understand why stop-motion is not a medium for the impatient. But it can be so very expressive, it can create vividly memorable characters, such as the original King Kong and Mighty Joe Young, such as those in Ray Harryhausen’s movies of the 1950s and 60s, or Nick Park’s great clay-animated figures in the Wallace and Gromit shorts.

CGI animation has its place, and has been used in some wonderful movies, but stop-motion has its own virtues—it is the only hand-made form of special effects. Facial expressions in this movie were accomplished by replacing part of the face step by step. At times the mind boggles in trying to understand how you could animate a delicate spider sculpture that’s hanging at the end of a wire. Or how the veil and gown of Emily the Corpse Bride flow so fluidly, seeming to be made of gauze and spiderweb. These apparently delicate sheets of fabric had to hold their pose from frame to frame—but how?!

The voice talent is terrific. Depp, in his fifth movie for Burton, is quiet and self-effacing; Victor is a gentle soul, and Depp’s voice, though never wispy, has a graceful, ethereal tone. Though Emily is dead, Helena Bonham-Carter’s voice is strong and forceful, though never loud. Often animated figures resemble the actors who provide their voices, but Richard E. Grant looks nothing like Barkis Bittern (the figure looks more like George Sanders), but he sounds exactly like this sneaky, snotty creep should. Christopher Lee provides a rich, orotund boom for the arrogant pastor that slightly suggest Vincent Price. Michael Gough was talked out of retirement to provide the musty, crusty voice of Gutknecht, the skeletal elder wise man in the Land of the Dead.

The dialogue is brisk and clever, the songs (when intelligible) are bright and sassy. Even though the subject matter suggests gloom and horror, “Corpse Bride” is a funny, upbeat charmer of a movie, one of the best of a second-rate summer.

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