Stop motion is one of the most painstaking and difficult forms of animation. It’s too bad that Tim Burton would choose to spend so much time on making the characters in his new film, The Corpse Bride, move so elegantly and spend so little time on the story they tell.
The Corpse Bride tells the wispy outline of a story about a young man named Victor, a prototypical Tim Burton hero – tall, skinny, bumbling, socially awkward, yet handsome, artistically gifted and so very, very sensitive. He is engaged to wed a woman he has never met, and it turns out that the two are wonderfully compatible. But when a wedding rehearsal turns into a comedy of errors, Victor wanders sadly into the forest where he accidentally gets engaged to the corpse of a woman who had been murdered some years back.
The Corpse Bride takes Victor to the Land of the Dead, a bright, Mexican styled world that’s a complete counterpoint to the dreary Victorian-style England of the living. Victor finds that he must decide where his love lays – with Victoria the living girl or with the dead girl.
Unfortunately Burton gives us no opportunity to make a comparison. The Corpse Bride gets a lot of screentime, while the still breathing Victoria is barely in the film, and as a character is hardly more than sketched out. In fact, she’s only defined by what she isn’t, which is happy, and we see what Victor can give to her in the marriage (no, not his Claymation wang. I’m talking about music, his Burtonian artistic gift). The Corpse Bride, on the other hand, is defined by what she is, which is exciting and, somewhat supposedly ironically, lively. We can see how the bright and colorful Land of the Dead can make Victor much happier. And frankly you have to be nuts to not cheer for him to go with that decomposing dame.
Burton’s mining very familiar territory here. He’s doing it quite well, but the fact is that it’s impossible to approach this film without being reminded of Nightmare Before Christmas, and The Corpse Bride, while completely charming for what it is, can’t hold up. The character design is too Nightmare in feel, and the Land of the Dead reminded me an awful lot of Beetlejuice.
This summer I gave a review of Burton’s Charlie and The Chocolate Factory where I talked a lot about what was wrong with the film and then gave it a pretty good numerical score. I find that when a film fits into that “Okay” slot, it’s more interesting to talk about what keeps it from being really good, but I’ve gotten so much shit over time for review that I will make sure I don’t do the same thing here. So that means now we come to what works with The Corpse Bride.
The best aspect of the film is probably the voice cast. Everyone digs into their role with scenery chewing gusto. Johnny Depp is Victor (a puppet that was designed before he took the role but one that looks just like him. It seems that Burton was expecting his longtime partner to be involved from the beginning), and he does great work with the least assertive and possibly least interesting character in the film. Victor’s a big fop, but Depp gives him heart.
Helena Bonham Carter is the standout as the Corpse Bride. The design of the puppet is creepy on a couple of levels – she’s pretty authentically rotten, for one thing. But more than that is the fact that the Corpse Bride has the head of Tim Burton’s current flame – Helena Bonham Carter – stuck on the body of his ex, Lisa Marie. Perhaps a remake of the gore great Pieces is next for him.
My favorite character was the maggot that lives in the Corpse Bride’s head, who has a voice like Peter Lorre. That maggot is a good indicator that the film is a touch grislier than Nightmare, and while it’s not really overtly bloody it does make you think about having a worm in your skull, always a disquieting proposition.
Danny Elfman’s songs sound like outtakes from – you guessed it – Nightmare. The film rushes forward at such a pace that it only allows itself time for about three songs, but one of them is really great, where skeletons disassemble themselves to become all different elements. It’s a perfect melding of Burton’s 12 year old boy obsessions, his teenagery goth interests and Mexican Day of the Dead imagery.
The most unforgivable thing about The Corpse Bride is its length. Clocking in at a slight 71 minutes, the film is barely longer than a TV show. For Warner Bros this is a sure fire way to make some money – more screenings every day! – but for people dropping down their hard earned money it’s a bit of a disappointment. Another half an hour would not only have made the film more of a value for your ticket price, but it would have allowed the story some breathing room and maybe even allowed us to understand why Victor would be all that interested in Victoria, beyond a cutesy reference when you put their names together.
Looking at the credits for The Corpse Bride and Nightmare Before Christmas, you see that the biggest difference is that Burton was more hands on this time (or demanding more credit). The finished film shows that Burton still has the ability to create lovely fairy tale-like stories, but that maybe he should have let someone else flesh his concepts out a bit more. Still, The Corpse Bride is charming and nice enough, and sure to please the legions of kids who have bought every Jack Skellington item at their local Hot Topic.
7.9 out of 10