Corpse Bride was a story that
Tim Burton had been hoping to make for
a while. It was loosely based on an
Eastern European folklore tale about
a murdered bride who rises from her
grave when a man accidentally places
a ring on her bony finger. The late
Ranft told this tale to Burton during
the making of The Nightmare Before
An early treatment was written by Caroline
Thompson, though because of differences
between her and the director, the shooting
script would be the work of Big
Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate
Factory writer John August. The
setting for the tale was moved from
Eastern Europe to a more Victorian England
It had been decided early on that stop
motion would be the best medium to tell
the story. 3
Mill Studios in London was chosen
as the base of operations. Burton would
take a much more active role in the
production this time, co-directing with
Johnson. It was decided to use digital cameras to save on time and money. With filming taking place
in London concurrently, it would reuse
many of the same cast and crew as Charlie.
Following the almost monochromatic WB
logo, the main titles depict life in
a Victorian town, puppet style. The
credits are not as memorable as some
of Burton's other films, but the sequence
does include some fun images such as
a sweeper moving in time to a clock
ticking. The opening song, "According
to Plan" is not one of Danny Elfman's
best songs (it does a little too good a job of showing how reserved and boring the characters are), but it does set the scene
A wedding is being planned by the Van
Dorts (who are happy that their shy
son Victor is finally getting married)
and the Everglots, who care less about
their daughter Victoria's happiness
than the fact that they are broke and
need the Van Dorts's money.
Victoria meet for the first time when
he is playing the piano. Watch for a
reference to the legendary Ray Harryhausen with the
name of the piano Victor is playing (Burton finally met the stop motion genius, a personal hero, during the production).
Victor himself doesn’t seem ready
for marriage, as we witness in an amusing
rehearsal scene where he almost burns
the house down.
Victor goes into the woods to practice
his vows, the town crier is already
announcing the rehearsal disaster. Victor
places the ring on what looks like a
branch and inadvertently proposes to
the Corpse Bride, who rises from her
grave in spectacular fashion and says,
"I do". Victor flees in terror
but the Bride catches him and he is
whisked away with her to the land of
Victor is understandably scared
at first and just wants to escape, but,
as with Halloween Town in The Nightmare
Before Christmas, the ghoulish-looking
denizens are actually far more lively
and loveable than the people in our
The Corpse Bride, whose real name is
Emily, has her sad history explained
by Bonejangles in the film's second, more lively,
song, “Remains of the Day”.
It turns out she planned to elope and
her suitor asked her to bring all her
wealth with her, then she was murdered
in her gown. So bride became corpse,
and vowed to wait for her true love
to set her free.
still wants to leave the underworld
but he pretends that he wishes Emily
to visit his parents so they can return
to the surface. They go to visit Elder
Gutknecht, who amusingly asks them "Why
go up there when people are dying to
get down here?" He makes a magical
concoction but then drinks it himself instead of using it for a spell.
Following a fruitless trip to the surface, Emily is very jealous of
"Little Miss Living". Accompanied
by the maggot and a black widow she
sings "Tears to Shed" a beautifully
plays the piano and Victor joins her.
It's a wonderfully romantic moment.
He is gradually overcoming his fear
and falling for her. Victor is surprised
when he sees Mayhew in the Land of the
Dead and even more shocked to learn
that Victoria, believing she has been
abandoned, is reluctantly going to marry
the vile Barkis.
Cue “The Wedding Song”.
The land of the living and the dead
come together, and it’s surprisingly
touching to see the fear of the living
give way to their joy at being briefly
reunited with their dead loved ones.
One zombie looks scary until a little
boy recognises him as his grandpa. There's
an unexpected Gone With the Wind
(1939) reference when a dead man
is reunited with his living wife and
says, "Frankly my dear, I don't
give a damn".
The dead arrive at the church and ignore
the Pastor's loud attempts to stop them
("Keep it down, we're in a church"
one zombie says). Victor and Emily are
about to marry inside the church when
Victoria arrives. Emily suddenly feels
guilty and stops Victor drinking the
poison that would have united them. However,
Barkis turns up and announces Victoria
is already his betrothed. Emily recognises
Barkis as her murderer (no surprise
there, kids) and he puts his blade to
After an amusing fight scene where Victor
defends himself with a fork, Emily tells
Barkis to get out and he asks her "Can
a heart still break once it's stopped
beating?" The other dead want to
get their revenge on him, but they cannot
break the rules of the world of the
living. An arrogant Barkis drinks from
the cup before he leaves, and almost
immediately dies and becomes blue. He
is now subject to the Land of the Dead's
rules, and they drag him away.
Bride is finally at peace thanks to
Victor. The resolution of the love triangle
may not please everyone, but the final
scene manages to be quite moving.
The voice work is very good across the
board. Johnny Depp plays a nervous Englishman
almost as convincingly as Hugh
Grant. Victor is almost like the
title character in Burton's Vincent grown up.
Helena Bonham Carter is even
better as the Corpse Bride, bringing
real emotion to the character. As usual,
Burton sketched the look of the characters
before production and the Corpse Bride
bears an unmistakable resemblance to
Elsa Lanchester's Bride
Watson is very sweet as Victoria.
Burton wanted to expand his female characters
and Emily and Victoria are the most
developed in his films since Catwoman.
The love triangle is sensitively handled,
with neither woman being portrayed as
Christopher Lee’s thunderous voice
is put to great effect as an impatient
Pastor. It's the third time the actor
has worked with Burton and Lee has said that he's
his favourite director. It’s also
wonderful to hear another Burton regular,
87-year old Michael Gough, voicing Elder
Gutknecht, a wise inhabitant of the
the villainous side, Richard
E. Grant’s big-chinned Barkis,
along with Albert Finney and Joanna
Lumley as Mr. and Mrs. Everglot,
are all superbly hiss-able. Mr. Everglot
in particularly is a wonderfully dour
character that has trouble even smiling.
also amusing voice work by British comedians
such as Paul
Whitehouse (the star of Johnny
Depp’s favorite TV series The
Fast Show, he also does two other
voices in the film) and Tracy
Ullman as the Van Dorts. Ullman
ad-libbed some wonderfully Victorian
dialogue like "wet his combinations".
Burton's favourite new actor,
Deep Roy, provides the voice for the
skeleton dwarf (even when he's a puppet
he's still small). Scraps, the skeleton
of the dog Victor had when he was younger,
is very similar to Zero in Nightmare.
The offended look on Scraps' face when
Victor asks him to "play dead"
is quite amusing. Maggot (who continually pops out of
Emily's eye socket) is clearly based
on Peter Lorre.
It's remarkable how much chemistry there
is between the members of the voice
cast since most of them never met each
other during the production. The character
designs are wonderfully representative
of the personalities. Hildergarde the
maid is shaped like a vacuum cleaner.
It's unclear how much each director
contributed to the film, but the absence
of Henry Selick does give the film a
different, perhaps more somber feeling
than Nightmare. The direction
is more like that of a live action film
than an animated one.
Visually the film is nearly flawless.
The contrast between the grey, drab
world of the living and the colorful
land of the dead works superbly. The land of the dead was influenced both by the day of the dead holiday and Mario Bava movies. Early concept had the above ground world in total black and white and the land of the dead literally upside down. The
miniature sets are wonderfully detailed
and feel like real locations.
The stop motion work is as good as any
in classic Ray Harryhausen films, with
only the tiniest of CG enhancements
to bring it into the 21st Century (though
some people thought it was all CG due
to the smoothness of the animation).
The characters are
so lifelike it’s easy to forget
you’re watching puppets. The puppets had tiny gears in their heads to allow for a greater range of expressions.
There are lots of nice visual gags,
such as the head waiter in the underworld
being a severed head carried around
on bugs, or the man who splits in half
to allow Victor to pass.
Danny Elfman provides a lovely, subtle
score and his songs, while not as fun
or catchy as those in Nightmare,
serve the story well. The small number
of songs does make it seem like a rather
half-hearted attempt at a musical, though.
Some of the lyrics were written by John
August as they tied into the plot closely.
Elfman also provides the voice for the
singing skeleton, Bonejangles, loosely
based on Sammy Davis, Jr (it reportedly played hell with Elfman's voice).
The original folk tale was based on
the anti-Semitic murder of Jewish brides,
but little of that theme survives in
the more English film version. There
are some comments on the problem of
arranged marriages, with the Everglots
clearly disliking each other and not
understanding why their daughter wants
to marry someone she knows and likes.
Victor fears marriage like Willy Wonka
Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride
(to give it its full title) may not offer anything really
new, but it’s a simple story well
told, with all the magic that Burton
brings to his best movies. While there
are plenty of amusing moments in the
film, the biggest surprise is that it’s
played straight for the most part, with
the puppet characters given almost as
much weight as flesh and blood actors.
Although Corpse Bride is paced
well for the most part, some people
might feel shortchanged by the running
time. The film is 76 minutes long, and
it feels even shorter. Aside from that
small complaint, and the lack of development
of some of the characters, the film
is a fine achievement in most areas.
There’s nothing too surprising
or deep about the story, though it’s
refreshing to see a love triangle where
both women are decent and arguably more
capable than the hero.
Of course, comparisons to Nightmare
will be unavoidable, and not just musically.
Corpse Bride isn’t as
innovative (the stop motion animation
has evolved to a point where you almost
forget it’s stop motion), but
it should be judged on its own merits.
Corpse Bride received good
reviews, though some critics found the
characters rather flat and the songs
unmemorable (Nightmare had
similar complaints on its release).
Although it didn’t match Charlie’s
success at the box office, it earned
over $50 million in the U.S. (very respectable
for a stop-motion animated film, which
is still considered a niche market).
It was nominated for an Oscar for Best
Animated Feature (Burton's first best
feature nomination of any kind), but
lost to Wallace
& Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (which also featured the voice of Bonham Carter).
Burton would take a two year break before following up this one-two punch with a far more adult movie.
AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
NEXT CHAPTER: SWEENEY TODD