Corpse Bride

CorpseBrideA maggot and a black widow spider sing a duet to raise the spirits of a brokenhearted dead woman. A man is reunited with the playful skeleton of his childhood puppy. This and more are on view in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, a sportive vision of the macabre. Burton thinks in intuitive images, and there are sights here that I would love to have framed on my wall — the image of the Corpse Bride, in her sooty gauze floating around her decaying blue flesh, slowly approaching her “suitor” on a bridge in the dead of night. Some of Corpse Bride has the iconic power of great silent cinema, and Burton is so cavalier about — and accepting of — the conditions of death and dismemberment that I can’t imagine anyone but the smallest child finding it frightening.

Unfortunately, Corpse Bride seems to have been made for that smallest child. Burton has tended towards mainstream pursuits in recent years, and though I’ve stood by him thick and thin — I enjoyed his Planet of the Apes remake for what it was (in the face of near-unanimous ridicule), and Mars Attacks! deserves serious re-appraisal as some sort of nutbrain classic — I’ve been dispirited by how little fight he seems to have put up against the mainstream. Corpse Bride clocks in at a whiplash 74 minutes, and it might have been even shorter if not for several uninspired Danny Elfman songs, which here feel like padding. It’s as if Burton and his co-director Mike Johnson had one eye on the clock, so as not to bore … well, what audience, exactly? The audience for Corpse Bride will indulge just about anything gothy and Burton-esque from Burton. But they may not indulge him this time.

Johnny Depp gives voice to Victor Van Dort, a skittish young man who is to be married, whether he wants to or not, to the pleasant if boring Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson). Victor blunders through the wedding rehearsal, and when running through the procedure alone in the woods one night, he slips the wedding ring on what he takes to be a branch but is the finger of Emily, the Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter). Emily pursues the horrified Victor and brings him into the land of the dead, which is designed to look much more colorful than the land of the living. Bones rise up and sing, swapping skulls and dancing with halved cadavers, bodiless heads, skeletons with luridly jutting jaws. The tone is both antic and morbid; Burton is in his element.

Fans of 1993’s Nightmare Before Christmas expecting another Burton-Elfman stop-motion triumph, however, need to dial their expectations down a notch. Elfman’s songs for that goth favorite had infinitely more variety, and the movie found show-biz funkiness in the creepy and ghastly. Corpse Bride, technically impeccable though it is, plays like the work of a fervent Tim Burton imitator. The look is certainly in place, and some of the jocular sinisterness is fun. But Victor is a singularly dull character, and we can’t see why either Victoria or Emily wants him; the irony is that this is a romantic triangle without romance. Victor is caught between death and life, but neither one seems to be fighting very hard for his soul.

Towards the finish, the movie takes a turn towards disaster, when a nefarious character turns up and instigates, of all things, a sword fight. None of this was in the Russian folk tale Burton is borrowing, a fable derived from actual anti-Semetic violence and tragedy. In that tale, the living bride promises to live the Corpse Bride’s dreams, and the bereft cadaver finally rests in peace. Here, Victor seems ready to join Emily in death, until Victoria — whom he’s known barely a day — shows up. In the context of the film, and of Burton’s work, it seems like a sad capitulation to the “normal.” Will Victor really be happy in the glum land of the living, with Victoria’s horrid parents looming over him? And what about Scraps, Victor’s long-lost dead puppy? Won’t the poor little guy miss Victor? Corpse Bride has been envisioned but not thought through.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, animation, cult, fantasy, romance

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