Studio: Vinton Studios / Warner Bros.
Director: Mike Johnson & Tim Burton
Screenplay by John August, Pamela Pettler & Caroline Thompson
Producer: Tim Burton
Production Design: Alex McDowell
Cinematography: Pete Kozachik
Original Music: Danny Elfman
Johnny Depp …. Victor Van Dort
Helena Bonham Carter …. Corpse Bride
Emily Watson …. Victoria Everglot
Tracey Ullman …. Nell Van Dort/Hildegarde
Paul Whitehouse …. William Van Dort/Mayhew/Paul The Head Waiter
Joanna Lumley …. Maudeline Everglot
Albert Finney …. Finnis Everglot
Richard E. Grant …. Barkis Bittern
Christopher Lee …. Pastor Galswells
Michael Gough …. Elder Gutknecht
Jane Horrocks …. Black Widow Spider/Mrs. Plum
Enn Reitel …. Maggot/Town Crier
Deep Roy …. General Bonesapart
Danny Elfman …. Bonejangles
Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride is aptly named. While far from perfect, it’s probably the purest example of the director’s vision in recent years. Freed from the pressure of having to make a summer blockbuster or remain faithful to source material, Burton and his co-director Mike Johnson (along with an extremely talented cast and crew) have crafted a beautiful and bittersweet fairytale.
Taking a Jewish folk tale as its inspiration, the film tells the story of a touching romantic triangle between the nervous Victor, the downtrodden Victoria, and the Corpse Bride herself, Emily. Victoria’s parents only want her married so they can get to Victor’s money, while Victor himself doesn’t seem ready for marriage, as we witness in an amusing rehearsal scene where he almost burns the house down. When Victor goes into the woods to practice his vows and inadvertently proposes to the Corpse Bride, he finds himself whisked away with her to the land of the dead. Victor is terrified at first and just wants to escape, but, as with Halloweentown in The Nightmare Before Christmas, the ghoulish-looking denizens are actually far more lively and loveable than the people in our world. The fast moving plot finds Victor gradually overcoming his fear and falling for the Corpse Bride, while Victoria, believing she has been abandoned, is forced to marry the vile Barkis. 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 joy at being briefly reunited with their dead loved ones. The Corpse Bride finally finds peace and her murder is avenged (the identity of her murder probably won’t be a surprise to most people). The resolution of the love triangle may not please everyone, but the final scene manages to be more genuinely moving than the rather saccharine ending to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
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. Corpse Bride 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 (including an unexpected Gone With the Wind reference), 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. There’s also some wonderfully romantic moments, such as when Victor and the Corpse Bride play the piano together.
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. It’s disappointing that Warner Bros. didn’t take advantage of this and attach a short animation to the beginning of the film, as Disney did with Nightmare. Aside from that small complaint, and the lack of development of some of the characters, the film is a fine achievement in most areas.
The voice work is very good across the board. Depp plays a nervous Englishman almost as well as Hugh Grant. Carter is even better as the Corpse Bride, bringing real emotion to the character. Watson is very sweet as Victoria. Christopher Lee’s thunderous voice is put to great effect as an impatient Pastor, and it’s wonderful to hear another Burton regular, 87-year old Michael Gough, voicing Elder Gutknecht, a wise inhabitant of the underworld. On the villainous side, Grant’s Barkis, along with Albert Finney and Joanna Lumley as Mr. and Mrs. Everglot, are all superbly hiss-able. There’s also amusing voice work by British comedians such as Paul Whitehouse (from The Fast Show, one of Depp’s favorite TV series) and Tracy Ullman. Last but not least, Danny Elfman provides the voice for the singing skeleton, Bonejangles.
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 stop motion work is as good as any I’ve seen in classic Ray Harryhausen films (watch for an amusing reference to him with the name of the piano Victor is seen playing near the beginning), with only the tiniest of CG enhancements to bring it into the 21st Century. The expressions on the characters are so lifelike it’s easy to forget you’re watching puppets.
Danny Elfman provides a superb score and his songs, while not as immediately catchy as those in Nightmare, serve the story well.
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. It’s a worthy follow-up to that 1993 classic and while it didn’t blow me away on the first screening, I get the feeling that it’s the kind of film that will improve with repeat viewings, ensuring a long afterlife.
Arran McDermott 2005