Corpse Bride (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Note: I suppose the official title of the movie is Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, presumably to distinguish it from William Shakepeare's Corpse Bride or Jane Austen's Corpse Bride. The wordiness seems silly so, for the purposes of this review, the film will be referred to simply as Corpse Bride.

When it comes to animation these days, it's all digital. So leave it to Tim Burton to buck the trend. Since the release of his popular collaboration with Henry Selick, The Nightmare Before Christmas, fans have been clamoring for a sequel. Although Corpse Bride doesn't precisely fill that need, it scratches the itch. Selick was not involved in the production (Mike Johnson, who previously worked on the animation teams of both The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, fills the gap), which supposedly took ten years to complete, but you would never know it. And the animation, which is stop-motion rather than computer generated, looks wonderful. The story is off the beaten path, but it's not as bizarre as Burton sometimes gets (despite indications to the contrary, there's no actual necrophilia). It is suitable for all but the youngest viewers.

Victor Van Dort (voice of Johnny Depp) and Victoria Everglott (Emily Watson) have reached the eve of their arranged marriage without having met face-to-face. (It is not known whether Blake Edwards had anything to do with choosing the first names of the characters.) Her parents (Joanna Lumley, Albert Finney) are high class but broke. His parents (Tracey Ullman, Paul Whitehouse) are nouveau riche - fish mongers who struck the mother load. So this engagement is intended to keep Victoria's family solvent. When Victor and Victoria meet, it's love at first sight. Unfortunately, during the wedding rehearsal, Victor freezes up, can't remember his lines, and flees in humiliation. On the way home, he wanders through a graveyard. While reciting his vows in an attempt to memorize them, he accidentally places the ring on a skeletal finger (which appears to be a stick). He then discovers, to his dismay, that he has married Emily (Helena Bonham Carter), the Corpse Bride. And she's not a cadaver to be trifled with. This earns Victor a trip to the underworld to meet his new in-laws. Meanwhile, Victoria's parents, wasting no time now that Victor has vanished, plot to marry their daughter to a sleazy gentleman, Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant).

If there's a Burton animated formula, this movie follows it. We spend a lot of time with strange creatures, there's a lot of fantastical imagery, and the composer (in this case, Burton regular Danny Elfman) contributes a few jaunty but forgettable musical numbers. At times, the movie plays like a (dark) comedy (a lot of the satire is subtle and will go over the heads of younger viewers), but there's a surprising tenderness to the proceedings. The main characters (Victor, Victoria, Emily) are nicely developed, and we feel for all of them. Emily's tragic tale is touching, as is her plight: a woman murdered before she can fulfill her lifelong dream of reaching the altar.

The film looks great - better, in fact, than many of the recent crop of computer animated motion pictures. (Madagascar leaps to mind.) The unique look of the characters (the faces are almost all eyes, and the eyes are expressive) works. The background details match those in the foreground, and there are plenty of in-jokes sprinkled around. (For example, the brand of the piano played by Victor is a nod to one of the stop-motion trailblazers, Ray Harryhausen.) Color desaturation is also used effectively. The film is almost black-and-white in the above-ground scenes (emphasizing the coldness of the society), but warms up considerably in the underworld, where rich hues bleed into the picture. Corpse Bride clocks in at a skinny 1:18, so there's no room for extraneous material. As animated films go, this is easily the best of a weak year, and now that Burton has achieved a degree of mainstream success with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, maybe audiences will flock to see this during the pre-trick or treat season. It's certainly more of the latter than the former.

Corpse Bride (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:18
U.S. Release Date: 2005-09-16
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1