Corpse Bride: rises from grave, kicks ass
Is any film a more guaranteed hit than a Tim Burton movie, opening in the first days of fall, with the word ‘corpse’ in the title?
I certainly don’t think so. Since he caused my childhood to take a turn for the strange in 1985’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Burton has made his mark at the helm of numerous off-kilter masterpieces like Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and Ed Wood. Now, the patron saint of oddballs reaches back into the dark, gothic world he calls home and offers up what could only be described as the quintessential Tim Burton movie. After more than 20 years and 20 films, that could either mean really great or really boring. Seriously, does the world need yet another quirky Tim Burton movie scored by Danny Elfman, starring Johnny Depp?
If that movie is Corpse Bride, then the answer is yes.
The film uses the same animated style of 1994’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, a great musical that became a classic in near-record time. Of course, stop-motion animation has been around for years, and if I knew a little more about it, I’d posit a theory or two as to why Corpse Bride looks so much more amazing than its predecessors. I don’t, but I’ll tell you what I do know: Nightmare, by virtue of its visuals, hasn’t aged like films normally do. It still looks great, and I imagine the similarly wonderful Corpse Bride will enjoy the same kind of longevity.
The film concerns the coming wedding of Victor and Victoria (each ably voiced by Johnny Depp and Emma Thompson), which is traditional in the strictest sense: the two meet for the first time at their rehearsal dinner, the nuptials having been parentally arranged for reasons of financial gain. Luckily for the couple, they hit it off immediately, so they don’t have a problem acclimating themselves to the terrifying prospect of lifelong companionship. All goes as well as could be expected, until Victor finds he can’t memorize his vows.
Determined to make the wedding work, Victor goes into the woods to practice. In a turn of events that calls to mind, more than anything else, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he mistakenly proposes to Emily (Helena Bonham Carter) while rehearsing. Emily is a sweet, pretty girl, caught out in the night waiting for her own fiancÃ©e to return to her. Unfortunately, the wait killed her a number of years ago, and by the time she meets Victor, she’s half-rotted, infested with maggots and more than ready for a husband. Any husband.
Finding himself newly wedded and plunged, still living, into the land of the dead, Victor struggles to find a way back aboveground. One wonders why, of course ‘— it’s the dead folks who seem to be having all the fun. The underworld is a colorful place in Corpse Bride: it’s basically one big bar, filled with jovial, friendly spirits. It’s especially enticing when contrasted with the gray, dreary world of the living. Anyone who saw Beetlejuice knows that in Burton’s world, the ghouls throw one helluva party.
There are a lot of old-fashioned gags that fit right in with the film’s vintage visual style: skeletal barflies quaff mugs of beer that fall through their ribcages onto the floor, and eyeballs pop out of their sockets, rolling around on the floor or landing in bowls of soup. It’s almost like watching an old Tex Avery cartoon, if only for the easy yuks and the vibrant colors.
Maybe I like Corpse Bride so much because it’s a perfect example of how to pay homage to your influences without ripping them off. Even by Burton’s standards, the film is original, populated by a cast of bizarre, beautifully rendered creatures that make every frame fascinating to watch. But it’s also a part of larger traditions, both animated and musical. The songs by Danny Elfman are great, though there are surprisingly few of them. I’m sure this is necessitated by the film’s length, a quickly paced but filling 75 minutes. This type of animation is time-consuming work, but it certainly keeps the fat off a movie, since superfluous scenes could mean months of extra production. I can think of several filmmakers who could stand that sort of lesson in discipline.
However, despite its brevity the film doesn’t feel rushed at all; to the contrary, it hits all the needed bases while retaining that familiar dark whimsy that has become a Burton trademark. Corpse Bride will please old fans still smarting from Planet of the Apes, as well as those diehards who have made The Nightmare Before Christmas a holiday favorite and a cult classic. After a lackluster late-summer showing from Hollywood, Corpse Bride is a breath of fresh air in just about every way.
Though he would never admit it, Glen Baity likes the Planet of the Apes remake because ‘– direct quote ‘– ‘“the monkeys win!’” To comment, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.