Director: Tim Burton
It’s difficult to discuss Corpse Bride, Tim Burton’s love letter to stop-motion animation, without making some kind of comparison to 1993′s Nightmare Before Christmas. And why not? Though the director’s chair for that earlier stop-motion feature was filled by Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Monkeybone), Burton’s stamp was literally all over the picture; from the wildly Expressionist world and Edward Gorey-esque character designs to Danny Elfman’s distinctive score. What’s more, there’s a lot in Corpse Bride for fans of Nightmare to love, especially when we leave the land of the living behind and journey to the twisted, carnivalesque shanty town of Burton’s afterlife. But the comparison also does a major disservice to the new film, bringing to light a deficiency that just can’t be ignored: simply put, Corpse Bride is not as good a movie as Nightmare Before Christmas. Its world seems less fully realized, its imagery (with some exceptions) less potent. The plot is sufficient enough – certainly for a movie which clocks in significantly under 90 minutes – but its characters lack depth. Even Elfman’s score, like much of his recent work, seems flat, uninspired, less memorable than the songs from Nightmare.
Chalk it up to nostalgia, perhaps. Because if any one word can describe the dominant mood of Corpse Bride, a classic special effects movie in the Pixar age, it’s nostalgia. Burton and crew drop references to cinema yesteryear left and right: Disney classic The Skeleton Dance, Peter Lorre, Caligari, even Burton’s own work (that oddly sparse, straight-trunked eerie forest look familiar?). Most entertainingly of all, a close-up of a piano in one scene reveals a bronze plate emblazoned with the name “Harryhausen.” It’s loving touches of detail like these that bring the film to life; and make no mistake, at its best Corpse Bride is a truly vibrant film, unafraid to relish in its own good-natured ghoulishness with the childlike enthusiasm Tim Burton does so well. Skeletons drink wine, only for the liquid to spill right through their ribcages. A French-accented severed head (complete with thin mustache) waits tables, propelled by the cockroach-like insects which infest his stump of a neck. Regularly, the eyeball of the corpse bride herself (voiced gamely by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory‘s Helena Bonham Carter) pops out of its socket and rolls around on the floor; in one scene, she begins to frolic through the forest, only for one of her legs – the one without any flesh – to crack off and remain upright on the ground.
It’s morbid stuff, yes – especially when you consider that the relationship between Johnny Depp’s Victor, his arranged bride-to-be Victoria (Emily Watson) and the Corpse Bride is an authentic love triangle, not the usual kids’ fare and certainly problematic for less laissez faire parents. But it’s also a hell of a lot of fun to watch, and that’s what rescues the film from living forever in the shadow of its predescessor. The special effects are, of course, amazing; both more endearing and somehow more lifelike than the slicker digital effects of Shrek or The Incredibles, and rendered with a wicked playfulness that trumps just about any recent animated feature you can name. To their credit, Burton and co-writer John August also invest just the right amount of sympathy in their otherwise thin characters, never assaulting us with the sentimentality that threatened to overwhelm Charlie.
But Corpse Bride‘s resonance just doesn’t come as naturally as 2003′s Big Fish (an underrated Burton movie if ever there was one), and more problematically for avowed eye candy like this, it fails to provide a richer visual experience than Nightmare Before Christmas gave us twelve years ago. Try as the creators might to push forward, there is very little here as breath-taking as the spiralled, unfurling hills of Halloweentown – to name only one classic image from that film. What we are left with is a movie that’s satisfied simply to be a cult artifact, a tribute to a bygone era in motion picture special effects to which Burton obviously feels an affinity. Could this be the last of the big-budget stop-motion films? If so, it’s an affectionate and caring farewell…not to mention a very fine Halloween genre piece and an entertaining movie in general. But years from now, when we look back on the medium’s twilight years, chances are we won’t be talking about Corpse Bride. And with a movie as esoteric and reverent as this one, well, maybe that’s the point.
Reviewed by Zach Hoskins
This review is also posted on The Modern Pea Pod.