I may be softening some in my views of Tim Burton. I’ve said before that he’s a director with a very limited talent, who is seemingly unable to make a film without applying Gothic sensibilities to it, whether appropriate or not. And I’ll stand by that statement. But while there are certainly cases where this doesn’t work, every so often Burton does a film that actually seems tailored to his sensibilities. Perhaps as long as the man stays with his own material instead of trying to adapt somebody else’s, he can create a decent film.
Of course, Corpse Bride isn’t 100% Burton’s material, and not just because he has a co-director (Mike Johnson) and a cabal of co-writers. It’s based on a 19th century Russian fairytale, “The Finger”. But it’s a story that fits within Burton’s sensibilities, and — perhaps just as importantly — it’s a fairytale that most westerners don’t know, so even if it weren’t completely Burtonesque, it lacks the feeling of Burton putting his spin on something the viewers are already familiar with.
In fact, the only thing most viewers will be familiar with is the maggot’s Peter Lorre impersonation.
The title tells the basic premise, as titles are wont to do. Victor (Johnny Depp, naturally) is due to be wed to Victoria (Emily Watson) in an arranged marriage to satisfy the interests of both sets of their parents. After Victor repeatedly botches the vows during a rehearsal dinner, he is sent out by the priest (Christopher Lee in a cameo) to practice. As he finally gets the vows right, he puts the ring on a dead twig that turns out to not be a twig, but a woman’s finger bone. Up arises the Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter, of course), a woman murdered on the night of her elopement, doomed to an eternity of unrest until her marriage is fulfilled… a promise that Victor has just inadvertently invoked. Victor is whisked away into the land of the dead, and he has to figure out how to get out of his unarranged marriage and back into his arranged one.
It’s a reasonably fun story (though smaller children may be either bored or frightened by it), and the characters are written well. Despite the circumstances of their various marriages, Victor, Victoria, and Emily the Corpse Bride are all characters who are easy to like and have easily understood motivations. Even if Emily may seem rather batty initially, a musical number helps to establish her feelings in such a way as to let the audience sympathize with her plight. The musical numbers, incidentally, are written (and sometimes performed) by Danny Elfman, and they’re quite entertaining as well as unusually arranged. They do a lot to establish the mood of each scene.
Though knowing Elfman’s history, it’s hard not to picture this scene and mentally insert “Dead Man’s Party”.
The animation is top-notch. The third stop-motion picture produced by Burton, it shows as much attention to detail and unique characters as The Nightmare Before Christmas. Character animations are smooth, and there are fine details in every object, from the layering of Victor’s hair to the tasteful “Harryhausen” tribute plaque on a piano. It also has a distinct visual style — not just from other films but from its predecessor (though Emily is a bit reminiscent of Nightmare‘s Sally). And it borrows from The Wizard of Oz in an interesting way, with the living world being dull-colored to the point of being near monochrome, while the land of the dead is full of bright colors, albeit colors drawing more from the secondary palette than the primary.
It’s a little odd for one’s life to become more colorful after it ends.
The story, characters, songs, and animation garnered the film quite a bit of critical acclaim when it came out, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature (losing to another stop-motion film, Curse of the Were-Rabbit.) On this particular Burton film, I’ll not be a dissenter; it’s a solid little film, and I could easily see revisiting it every few years near Halloween.