Corpse Bride

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 09/27/05 15:15:24

"Ironically lifeless."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

There’s something missing in “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.” The filmmaker’s long-awaited return to the stop-motion animation format used previously in his minor masterpiece “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is unexpectedly flat, as if everything negative that’s ever been said about his style - too reliant on visuals, too empty elsewhere - has exploded onto the screen. The film is a dandy for the eyes, but, sadly, that’s all there is. The rest is a rather unimpressive, unexpectedly forgettable work.

The film plays like a child’s fairy tale storybook come to life; the problem here is that the screenwriters (Pamela Pettler, Caroline Thompson, and John August) take this too literally, leaving the story as undercooked as a twenty-page rhymer. The feel of a kid’s book is there in spades, but there’s nothing else, nothing drawing us into this strange new world. There should be magic pouring out of every scene. Instead, there is only the loose framework of a story hoping to get by on thin ideas and rough sketches.

Indeed, “Corpse Bride” would work wonderfully as a sketchbook. In that format, we could get all the exciting, inventive character designs and intricate set decorations without having to deal with any of that pesky story stuff. Alas, a story is what we get here - the general outline of one, anyway. It’s enough to make the movie feel like it’s telling us something, but not enough to actually follow through on that feeling.

Skinny, pale Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp) is set to be married to skinny, pale Victoria (Emily Watson), an arrangement made by their parents. Victor gets cold feet, and while practicing his vows in the deep, dark woods, he inadvertently slips the wedding ring onto the decaying hand of Emily (Helena Bonham Carter), our titular Corpse Bride. Sucked into the land of the dead (and into a marriage he did not expect), Victor plans to return to the land of the living.

That’s about it, really. The script never pushes the tale beyond this premise; once the set-up is set up, the movie has nowhere to go. Will Victor learn to love the sweet Emily? Or will he return to marry Victoria, with whom he was beginning to fall in love before being so rudely interrupted? The filmmakers struggle to figure out how to work this love triangle without resorting to cliché; it’s nice that neither woman was made into an obvious “bad” character, but in making us root for both, the finale refuses to satisfy. More than that, in fact: it refuses to make much sense. The characters are too busy stumbling through their motions without providing any actual explanation for their behavior. This prevents the story from being the gothic romance Burton wants. The character interaction is one big yawn, so who cares how it all turns out?

Burton’s new world lacks the depth (and magic) of his “Nightmare.” That film gave us an elaborately involving setting, and it was easy to lose yourself in the characters’ worlds. With “Corpse Bride,” however, the land of the dead is too flimsily explored - we get a pub of some kind, and a few dark streets, some kind of mystical elder, not much else. And even those places and characters aren’t as detailed, as inviting, as fascinating as they should be. This is supposed to be a whole new world of imagination. Why doesn’t it grab the viewer? Where’s the vast sense of wonder?

Perhaps Burton spent all that vast sense of wonder on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Like “Corpse Bride,” that film placed far too much emphasis on visual gimmickry and not enough of character or story. But at least that film contained the random bit of storytelling magic (thanks to Roald Dahl’s source material, natch) that kept us engrossed. Here, there’s simply nothing to hook the viewer.

Another comparison to “Charlie:” Danny Elfman’s music. As in that film, the songs of “Corpse Bride” feel tossed off and half baked. And as in that film, one of the key songs goes by with too many unintelligible lyrics. “Corpse Bride” is presented as a musical, yet there is not one piece of music that sticks out, even five minutes after the song has been performed. Elfman’s contributions to “Nightmare” left us humming. His contributions to “Corpse Bride” leave us checking our watches.

In fact, the only time we’re not checking our watches is when we’re given something new at which to look. A skeleton dance sequence is fascinating stuff, at first. The pseudo-Victorian setting of Victor’s world is intriguing, at first. The pseudo-impressionistic underworld is gorgeous, at first. There’s nothing here to keep us wanting more. It’s all a series of set pieces designed to thrill on first impact, with nothing in the story or characters to keep us interested. Even the dips into morbid humor fall flat far too often, with jokes and scenes lifted from Burton’s earlier fare (one moment recalls “Beetlejuice” so well that I began wishing I was watching that gem instead), others too dependent on weak, uninspired wordplay and (kid-friendly) gross-out nonsense. And while I’m all for the wordplay and gross-out nonsense, I’m only all for it when it’s fun. Here, it’s too dull, too flat.

Burton is obviously playing for his usual Gloomy Gus audience by relying on his old tricks - the loner hero, the goth imagery, the fairy tale atmosphere, the preference of weird over normal. But with “Corpse Bride,” he forgets to add the one thing that made his previous works successful: character. “Edward Scissorhands” is a lovely gothic legend, but its center is in Edward himself, not in the visuals. “Big Fish” worked overtime to create the proper fairy tale tone, yet it ultimately worked thanks to a strong central character, not the set design. And although “Nightmare” fills every inch of the frame with exciting visions, we’re ultimately drawn into the film by the cast and the story.

“Corpse Bride” unfortunately forgets all of this. It’s Burton by rote, a by-the-numbers idea of what a Tim Burton fairy tale should be. All of Burton’s visual trademarks are here, but his character trademarks are curiously weak. This is a yarn that’s been spun with too little care. With no depth to the material, the loveliness of the exterior crumbles all too quickly.

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