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May 12, 2006 |

By Miscellaneous | Film | May 12, 2006 |

Tim Burton’s fantasies are other people’s nightmares. He’s built his career on a policy of getting cozy with freaks and dead things, whether they’re the ghosts played by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis in Beetlejuice, the ghoulish grade-Z movie stars of Ed Wood, or the circus people of Big Fish, so it’s no surprise that his first foray into romantic comedy would contain a heroine whose flesh is literally rotting off her bones.

Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride begins in a gray, repressive Victorian town on the day before the wedding of Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp) and Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), who have never met. Their marriage was arranged by the parents, land-rich but cash-poor Lord and Lady Everglot (Albert Finney and Joanna Lumley) and nouveau-riche social climbers the Van Dorts (Tracey Ullman and Paul Whitehouse). Though the location of the town isn’t specified, the cast, as you may have noticed, is terribly British, as is the treatment of class. The Everglots sneer and snarl over the prospect of being forever tied to such commoners while anxiously anticipating the infusion of wealth that the connection will bring, and the Van Dorts, though simple, modest people, can’t wait to join high society. Oblivious Victor wants no part in it; he’s just hopeful that Victoria won’t turn out to be a harpy. And Victoria, who’s actually sweet and rather na├»ve, prays that Victor may turn out to be her true love.

Though the voices are familiar, there are no star turns here. Depp, one of only two Americans in the cast, speaks with an English accent that blends well with the other actors, all of whom disappear into their characters, aided the film’s elegant visuals. If you see the words “stop-motion animation” and immediately picture a jerky Ray Harryhausen dinosaur or a Rankin-Bass reindeer, you’re in for quite a surprise. Corpse Bride’s animation is so fluid and naturalistic — considerably more so than in Burton’s 1993 The Nightmare Before Christmas — that it looks almost like a computer-generated cartoon, but with more convincing space and depth.

The world of Corpse Bride is a fascinating and darkly beautiful one, but it suffers in comparisons to Nightmare. In the earlier film, Burton and his team created an entirely new universe and packed it full of imaginative characters and gewgaws. The world of Corpse Bride has its own clever inventions, but it lacks the freshness and wonder of Nightmare; the influence of cartoonists like Charles Addams and Edward Gorey is more apparent and there are fewer newly imagined things to look at. And the puppets and sets created for this film are so smoothly manipulated and carefully crafted that I found myself missing the slight imperfections, the hand-wrought quality of those in Nightmare. Those factors, combined with its 76-minute running time, abrupt ending, and loose, unlabored tone, give the movie a casual, almost throwaway, feel.

After a disastrous wedding rehearsal, Victor wanders by himself through the woods, practicing his vows. As he recites the words, he slips the wedding ring onto what he takes to be a tree branch — but is actually … a skeletal hand! Bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha! Sorry. Anyway, a dead girl (who looks remarkably like the current Michael Jackson, as Johnny Depp did in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — is this a motif?) pops up out of the ground and announces that they’re hitched. Victor runs but she soon catches up, sealing their marriage with a kiss that magically transports him to the underworld. And here Burton’s done something particularly Burtonian — while the world of the living is bland, dank, and monochrome, the world of the dead is a riot of color and energy, the Oz to the living world’s Kansas.

Victor is torn by conflicting obligations. Back in the world of the living awaits his true fiancee, whom he barely knows but believes he’s fallen in love with, while down in the creepy-crawly depths where the dead walk lives … well, exists another woman to whom he’s inadvertently promised himself as well. The bride, whose name is Emily (and who’s played by Helena Bonham Carter, Burton’s own fiancee), has a sad backstory and a desperate desire to be loved that wins Victor’s affection, despite her several protruding bones. Inevitably, Victor comes off pretty fickle; he falls in love with Victoria upon their first meeting, but as soon as he starts to feel sorry for Emily, he’s ready to stay with her. What’s a guy to do?

In writing about films for children, critics (myself included) tend to praise — or occasionally disparage — the inclusion of some jokes intended for adults, but this distinction is useless here; the film neither talks down to kids nor sucks up to grownups. Some jokes are smart and some are dumb, but there’s no pandering, no winking at the audience.

Burton understands children better than most adults do; he knows they’re tougher, smarter, and weirder than we usually give them credit for. It’s this trait that made him such a fitting adaptor of Roald Dahl’s Charlie : In dealing with elements of the horrific or absurd, he’s willing — like a child spinning a story on a playground — to push them way, way out, letting his internal barometer decide just how much he can get away with. His films are fairy tales that haven’t had the scary bits — the good parts — edited out.

He fills the corners of Corpse Bride with tributes to the horror movies of his youth, giving Victor a Harryhausen piano to play, including a talking/singing/advice-giving worm (they call it a maggot in the film, but it’s a worm) that’s the spitting image of Peter Lorre, and casting Hammer stalwarts Christopher Lee (who also played Willy’s father in Charlie) as Pastor Galswells and Michael Gough (who was Alfred in Burton’s Batman films) as Elder Gutknecht.

Burton began his career as a Disney animator, working on such lame latter-day animated features as The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron. In Corpse Bride, as in Nightmare, Burton operates much like Walt Disney did; delegating the day-to-day work to others but imbuing everything with his own peculiar sensibility. The film was originally conceived by the late Joe Ranft, writer for several of Disney and Pixar’s biggest hits of the 1990s, and largely shot by Burton’s co-director Mike Johnson (who worked as an assistant animator on Nightmare). Burton’s constant collaborator Danny Elfman wrote four songs for the movie (with some lyrics by John August, one of the screenwriters) that are both fun and narratively indispensable — they make swift work of complicated exposition. But while many hands stirred the pot, the overarching vision is distinctively Burton’s, remarkably unchanged from his first original animated project, Vincent, 23 years ago.

(If you haven’t seen Vincent, check it out: It’s available as a special feature on the Nightmare DVD. It’s an homage to Vincent Price narrated by the man himself, and it stands right up there with “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” as a genius use of a horror legend in an animated kid’s story.)

Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]


Tim Burton's Corpse Bride / Jeremy C. Fox

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