Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Albert Finney
Disabuse yourself of the notion that Tim Burton's latest is going to be on as grand a scale as his earlier animated feature, Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, and you'll have a better time with this more intimate, sweetly macabre film. Burtonians will understand when I say Corpse Bride perhaps has more in common with the director's early short film Vincent and his book The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories than with Nightmare. The new movie is a simpler, more somber work, less prone to digressing from the central story -- yet no less creative or funny.
In fact, some of the dialogue here is sharper than that in Nightmare. This isn't to say that the new film is exactly a departure for Burton -- and that's good news. The director's vision is unique and should be treasured in a world of corporate-minded processed-cheese movies. No, his work isn't for everyone -- that's generally the function of the mediocre. Rather, Burton is someone who makes movies to please himself, and he's just generous enough to share them with the world. The one time he actually tried to make a popular film (Planet of the Apes), he didn't please much of anyone (including, I suspect, himself).
This round, Burton has given us his take on a Russian folk tale about a young man, Victor (Johnny Depp), who accidentally marries a corpse, Emily (Helen Bonham Carter) -- only to find that this slightly decomposed charmer fully intends on keeping her man. Of course, it's all done with a healthy dose of Burton's particular preoccupations and love of the absurd. Victor's parents (Paul Whitehouse and Tracey Ullman) are the 19th-century equivalent of a modern-day pair of nouveau riche social climbers. They've made a fortune in tinned fish and are out to buy their way into society by marrying their son to Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), daughter of the more upscale -- but very impoverished -- Finnis (Albert Finney) and Maudeline Everglot (Joanna Lumley).
The tale has an immediate irony in that Victor and Victoria are attracted to each other almost at once -- but there's a stumbling block. Victor is a typically tongue-tied Burton hero (and onscreen alter ego) and can't remember the somewhat complex wedding vows, much to the consternation of the irritable Pastor Galswells (Christopher Lee in a very funny voice performance). In fact, Victor so botches things that he mostly manages to set Mrs. Everglot on fire. It's when he's off trying to memorize his vows that he finds himself married to the corpse bride -- remembering the words at just the wrong time and putting the ring on what he thinks is a tree branch.
This is at once a perfect depiction of a folk tale and a perfect Tim Burton movie, setting the stage for wonderful set-pieces, with characters from beyond the grave (including one terrific Danny Elfman musical number, "Remains of the Day"). Even more, it allows the film to explore some surprisingly deep themes.
It may all be in fun, but I can think of no other movie that actually addresses the issue of the essential humanity of persons who have gone to "the other side." If the dead were to return to at least a semblance of life, how would we treat them? Would we view them with the same feelings we held for them in life? After all, they are the same people, at least in the world of Corpse Bride; they're just a little the worse for wear through the universal indignities of decomposition.
This could be -- and doubtless will be in some quarters -- viewed as a morbid preoccupation. Yet in Burton's hands, the dead tend to be a lot more lively -- and accepting -- than the living, and the world they inhabit a more colorful one than the gray, monochromatic, Caligari-esque one of the living. For a time, at least, convention is stood on its head in the most delightful ways. How typical of the slightly macabre world of Tim Burton.
So, too, is the voice casting of Burton alumni like Depp, Bonham Carter, Finney, Lee, Michael Gough, and Deep Roy. And the same can be said of bringing in Danny Elfman for more Kurt Weill-like songs a la Nightmare Before Christmas -- and the evocations of old horror movies and Charles Addams, Edward Gorey and Max Fleischer cartoons. But that's what makes a Burton film a Burton film -- that, and an abiding sense of the power of love in its purest form.
By the time Corpse Bride reaches its perfectly realized final shot (which is brilliantly set up from the film's opening), you'll understand that the power of love is ultimately Burton's greatest concern. We see this manifest in no small part in the love that was put into the creation of this remarkable film. Rated PG for some scary images and action, and brief mild language.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke