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Skill and crossed bones
A film review of TIM BURTON'S CORPSE BRIDE by Camus
"There's been a grave misunderstanding..."
Poster tagline


Corpse Bride (excuse me, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride) is a very sweet movie and I use the word honestly with no sprinkle of irony. Its sweetness is in the story's very DNA and for a film that fills the frame with mostly dead people, over stylized to be sure, there's not a foul stench to be reeked or a single glimpse of viscera. In fact its completely bloodless, its hue blue and cold grey. But again, this is a literal trait of the film, which in essence, is a grim fairy tale for children. We are not in an underground heaven or hell, nor some bloody Romero charnel house. We are skipping lightly through the clean but imaginative landscape of Mr. Tim Burton. Warner Brothers has elevated Burton to auteur status. There are few directors who get such treatment (John Carpenter springs to mind), with a stamp of authorship reflected even in the movie's title. The movie is co-directed with Mike Johnson but there's little doubt from whose brain this little confection was hatched.

When moviegoers go for a Burton, they know what they're in for. Burton has specific design credentials (all present and correct in this charming fantasy) and when his imaginative flights are grounded and cannot possibly be faithfully recorded with real actors, then it's back to his first love – animation (to be precise stop motion animation). In a dark tinged middle European village, Victor is marrying Victoria tomorrow. There are rehearsals to attend and both families think the marriage (an arranged one) will benefit them, one pair acquiring enhanced social standing and the other is after basic cash. But Victor and Victoria have not met and Victor is shy and the clumsiest animated hero since (forgive me, I can't even recall another clumsy animated hero). But love blooms outside of strict social observances (a piano, the passion of music) and suddenly the marriage doesn't feel so bad to either of the participants. But Victor can't get the vows right and after a dark woodland located private rehearsal, he manages to say all the right things and places the ring on a twig. It's not a twig. Exhumations are not usually fun but enter (or rather unearth) the Corpse Bride, her bony finger now resplendent with a gold band. Victor is a married man and he is whisked to the underworld to begin his honeymoon.

OK, OK. We all know that Victor and Victoria will end up together. We also know (if we twitch our movie antennae a little more vigorously) that the Corpse Bride will redeem herself and the true villain will meet a bad end. We know all this. But the journey is delightful. Stop motion animation is one of the most brutal regimes that film-making can impose on an artist. Apparently, it took 28 shots just to get the Corpse Bride to blink... The figures and sets were so large, normal sized crew members could go through doors with barely a bend at the waist. But it is worth every frame. There is a spell that stop motion animation casts over a story. It's like a familiar tale inside a felt bound book. You feel the story as it's being told. The animated world of Wallace and Gromit has a more hands-on feel than Victor's tale which features tooled puppets, latex over titanium skeletons. But this is of no consequence. Did we care? Amazingly again, yes we did.

Victor is taken far below ground where the dead 'live' and treated to a boisterous display – and explanation of his predicament – by Bonejangles (voiced by composer and long time Burton collaborator – and Randy Newman sound-alike – Danny Elfman). Elfman has a distinctive style, no question but his lyrics are so inane and on the nose and his score not particularly creative or memorable that I admit to a slight feeling of annoyance whenever the narrative buckled under for a music number. It's not that the movie loses any significant amount of charm because of them, it's just that they sit uncomfortably on a very sophisticated wealth of visual invention. When Victor and his two brides (in two separate scenes) are at the piano, well that's another story – simplicity taking centre stage. There is something magical about an emotional connection made via the ivories. Music can nudge at all sorts of buried and shielded feelings and Elfman's solo piano does more than his orchestra's manic outpouring in establishing Victor's feelings for both of the women in his life.

There are some lovely and inventive visual gags (the Corpse Bride has a maggot as her Jiminy Cricket and at one stage, after popping out one of her table tennis ball eyes, he states in a Peter Lorre impression "I'll keep an eye out for him..." On the whole, the voice talent is impressive. Victor's English accent and gentle demeanour are brought to life by Johnny Depp (did he have any time off this year?). Helena Bonham-Carter invests the Corpse Bride with a nice line of sardonic wit and Emily Watson plays the straight but ever so sweet Victoria. British stalwarts, Albert Finney, Joanna Lumley and Tracey Ullman flesh out three quarters of the outrageously awful parents of the couple (nice to hear Paul Whitehouse's Mersey twang getting an outing as the remaining quarter) and the villain, operatically played by Richard E. Grant, is suitably over the top and back again. But two elder stars take the kudos for some marvellous voice work, Michael Gough as the bearded bag of bones librarian Elder Gutknecht and Christopher Lee as the village Pastor. If those vowels were rolled any more, they'd be pastry.

Victor tries to find a way back to the living and succeeds only in showing Victoria what's happening to him. Thrust back into the land of the dead, he incurs the wrath and bitter disappointment of the Corpse Bride and characters whom you once believed disconnected start walking over their narrative arcs and for a little while there is some doubt whom Victor will chose (a very little while). Just before the climax there is a moment of pure Burton heartstring pulling and it's a beauty. It takes fear and inverts it so delightfully that it made me want to hug someone. In short, Burton reveals his softer side in Corpse Bride and it's a light but eminently satisfying delight.

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

UK 2005

76 mins

Tim Burton
Mike Johnson
Allison Abbate
Tim Burton
John August
Pamela Pettler
Caroline Thompson
Pete Kozachik
David McCormick
Gregory Perler
music .
Jonathan Lucas
production design
Alex McDowell
Johnny Depp
Helena Bonham-Carter
Emily Watson
Tracey Ullman
Paul Whitehouse
Joanna Lumley
Albert Finney
Richard E. Grant
Christopher Lee
Michael Gough
Jane Horrocks
Enn Reitel
Deep Roy
Danny Elfman
review posted .
31 October 2005

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See all of Camus's reviews