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Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

Tim Burton, Mike Johnson, USA/U.K., 2005

Rating: 3.8

 

Posted: September 24, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Spoiler Alert: The last paragraph of this review reveals a major plot point -- as if it'd be hard to figure out in any event.

In the world according to Tim Burton, everything interesting happens on the other side of the curtain -- even (or perhaps especially) when that curtain is the veil that separates the living from the dead. In Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, Burton presents the darkness beyond our mortal coil into a kind of anti-Disney World theme park, where the living are drab, dusty caricatures driven by man's worst impulses (greed, class envy) and the dead are cool, colorful and fun.

The theme-park analogy is especially apt, as Corpse Bride, for all its stop-motion animated charms (enhanced by dollops of CGI), ultimately feels like an exercise in Disney-style brand extension (note the producer/co-director's name prominently placed in the title; guess he learned something during his stint as a Disney animator). It's easy to see Corpse Bride spun into a ride at Burton World, alongside such attractions as Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Sleepy Hollow, the Wonka Chocolate Factory and, uh, the Planet of the Apes. It's also easy to imagine the film recast as a family-friendly Broadway musical a la Beauty and the Beast.

That's because for all its surface embrace of the outré and the bizarre, Corpse Bride proves, in the end (no pun intended), to be as conventional and even life-affirming as the most powdery Disney confection. Like Burton's 1993 animated charmer The Nightmare Before Christmas, it dons somewhat ghoulish trappings to tell a safe, heartwarming tale (albeit without the latter's enchanting whimsicality).

Based loosely, or so it's said, on an old Russian folktale, Corpse Bride begins in a snowy, gloomy, vaguely Eastern European town, where the inhabitants, pale refugees from an Edward Gorey sketchbook, wear clothes as uniformly gray as the slightly imposing buildings in which they live. It's here we first meet our protagonist, Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp), a slim, hesitant wisp of a man whose quiet manner is supposed to be Burtonian shorthand for a thoughtful, even artistic soul (Victor plays a mean piano). Victor's parents, the Van Dorts, have arranged for him to marry Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), a union designed to confer status upon the nouveau-riche Van Dorts and save the snooty, old-money Everglots from poverty.

So far, so predictable -- the darkly imperious Everglots, the social-climbing Van Dorts and the ghastly Pastor Galswells (nicely voiced by the likes of Albert Finney, Joanna Lumley and Christopher Lee) represent everything stifling and lifeless about everyday society. It's understandable that Victor would be meek and skittish around them, but we never quite get the sense that it's merely these imposing personalities he's reacting to. Even when he meets (and clicks with) his primly pretty bride-to-be, Victor seems scared of his own shadow; he can't even get through the wedding rehearsal without stumbling and bumbling like Ichabod Crane channeling Don Knotts.

While practicing his vows in some nearby woods, Victor places his bride-to-be's ring on what appears to be a nearby twig but is actually the bony finger of Emily (Helena Bonham Carter), a comely dead girl whose untimely death right before an anticipated wedding has left her waiting, Sleeping Beauty-style, to be rescued by a valiant husband-to-be. Victor soon finds himself in the land of the dead, a spirited world of singing, dancing skeletons who break into lively musical numbers (courtesy of composer Danny Elfman) at the drop of a hat. It doesn't require a rocket scientist to get the idea that the "spooky" world of corpses and skeletons stands in bright, vivid contrast to the world we know -- death, in Burton's hands, becomes a metaphor for our quirky, individualist nature, as previously embodied by Pee-Wee Herman, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and other Burton heroes.

Similarly, it's obvious to everyone in the audience that the colorful, vivacious Emily is everything her inadvertent new husband is not, and you know what they say about opposites. But the newlyweds themselves seem blissfully unaware of this: Having waited so long for "true love," Emily is loathe to give up her newfound beau, just as Victor wants nothing more to return to Victoria. It's only once Victor learns that Victoria's parents, desperate to marry their way back into financial prosperity no matter what, have betrothed their daughter to the villainous Barkis Bittern (Richard Grant) that he consents to finalize his marriage to Emily -- an undertaking that involves imbibing poison to become truly dead and join her in the afterlife.

But if you think that's where things end up, you've never seen a Disney fantasy, or you've conveniently forgotten the conventionally mainstream sentiments that often lurk beneath the Gothic, even macabre veneers of Burton's most popular works. If that strikes you as standing in contradiction to Burton's penchant for celebrating non-conformity, well, sometimes sacrifices have to be made in the name of art -- or of marketing. If Corpse Bride portrayed Victoria as an unattractive harpy, and rested its narrative tension on a forbidden love between Victor and Emily a la Romeo and Juliet, audiences might get creeped out by the inevitable happy ending, which would seem an endorsement of necrophilia. And that kind of thing doesn't result in long lines at the box office -- or the theme park.

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