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CORPSE BRIDE (2005)

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 Joe Ranft told this tale to Burton during the making of The Nightmare Before Christmas.

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 style location.

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 Mike 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 nicely.

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.

Victor and 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.

As 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 the dead.

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 world.

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.

Victor 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 melancholy song.

Later, Emily 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 Victoria's throat.

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.

The Corpse 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 of Frankenstein.

Emily 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 the villain.

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 underworld.

On 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.

There’s 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 fears parenthood.

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.

PREVIOUS CHAPTER: CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY

NEXT CHAPTER: SWEENEY TODD

   

 

 

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