Worth A Look: 37.1%
Just Average: 14.52%
Pretty Crappy: 6.45%
12 reviews, 52 user ratings
Director Tim Burton miraculously parts the Hollywood Red Sea of target-marketed, painted-by-the numbers, prostituted-by-committee inveterate dreck and magically incarnates his Personal Vision in the form of a Unique Film of Genuine Value.Corpse Bride is, of course, a dazzling masterpiece of stop-action animation. But the story is a model of restraint. Its gentle emotional center gloriously rejects the slam-bang, hype-up and blow-hard mentality of today’s modern box-office pirate.
"Help! I’m falling in love with a stop-mo puppet!!!"
The setting is some European backwater in the nether reaches of the nineteenth century, a colorless land of stern and cynical repression. Somehow, the sensitive likes of Victor Van Dort (voice of Johnny Depp) and Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson) survive their harsh surroundings, enduring patiently and quietly, never losing hope.
Plans for an arranged marriage bring them together, and a brighter future seems within reach. But when the nervous groom is out practicing for the big event in a strange, haunted forest, he unknowingly makes his vows to Emily (Helena Bonham Carter), who readily accepts. Problem: Emily is dead as a doornail!
Despite his protests, Victor is trundled off to the Land of the Dead with his new bride. Turns out it’s a lively, colorful place, replete with jolly corpses and skeletons who love to party like the Dickens. There he learns Emily’s tragic tale, how she was murdered by a duplicitous fiancé, but never gave up hoping for a new hubby to come along. Emily is as loveable as a corpse can be –she is vivacious yet naïve, an altogether well-meaning femme fatale who is innocently misguided in her quest. She maintains her hold on hapless, timid Victor with the determination of a love-struck schoolgirl. But we all know that Victor’s proper place is upstairs with Victoria. How can this tragic love-triangle end happily ever after?
Emily’s gradual acceptance of her fate is the light-as-a-feather heartbeat of this poignant, charming fairy tale. It works, thanks both to a thoughtful script and the superior quality of the animation, particularly in the unprecedented, subtle expressiveness of the main characters.
Like The Nightmare Before Christmas of 12 years earlier, the visual motif of Corpse Bride traces straight back to Ladislas Starewicz’ immortal stop-action short The Mascot (1934) in its riotous depiction of good-natured ghouls gone wild. But this time Burton provides a direct contrast: the gloomy, forsaken land of the living. Everything here seems unnaturally grey and smooth, like it was minted from solid blocks of moonlight. The cavernous, empty interiors of the Everglot mansion dwarf its fantastically doll-like inhabitants like a church of infinite sorrow. The slightest touch of color in this otherwise dun-cloud world speaks volumes: the pale blue butterfly painstakingly sketched and then freed by Victor, the ever so faint blush about Victoria’s cheek.
This entire section of the film is a delightful paradox. It’s a threadbare garment of gothic humility, yet at the same time it’s a child’s garden of delight, with a screenful of phantasmagorical eye-candy and ludicrous characters croaking along to a brain-damaged transmogrification of Gilbert and Sullivan. It’s fragile. It’s priceless. It’s subversive. I love it.
Moving on to the Land of the Dead, the zaniness cranks up a notch, although for pure entertainment value, it suffers somewhat in comparison to the earlier Nightmare. Instead of rehashing the old Mascot shtick, Burton keeps his gothic love story center stage. So the real news here is the introduction of the indelible Corpse Bride, perhaps the most compelling stop-action character ever to step onto the tabletop. Her complex personality radiates from the very first frame. She represents a major breakthrough in the art of communicating an emotional state through the body language and facial expressions of a puppet.
(I find it hard to believe, but the mouths and eyebrows of these puppets were controlled by sticking an allen wrench in their ear or whatever and turning tiny gears within. The nuance of expression is simply amazing. The results are captivating performances that rival anything I’ve seen a live actor do.)
As the story progresses, the conflict between the carefree Land of the Dead and the dismal real world emerges as sort of sub-theme. A minor villain also crops up -the underhanded Lord Bittern, who has none-to-honorable designs on Victoria. But these more melodramatic proceedings serve to enhance, rather than displace, the bittersweet love story at the center of the film. Finally, it all ends with a sigh -and a most memorable sigh indeed. A fitting metaphor for a film that is happy and sad, a film where people and emotions can outlive their own deaths, and a film where ambition always gives up its seat for true happiness.
Corpse Bride is a real treasure of stop-action animation. The puppets are very smooth (made of silicon), the style of animation is very smooth, and there are lots of smooth camera movements, all resulting in a silky and unusual look for stop-motion. It seems almost like CG, but you always sense the presence of something real in front of the camera, and that’s a good thing.
The visual design, spearheaded by Burton, is consistently delightful, and there are a great many sight gags and fun little references. But this is not a laugh out loud film, for the most part. Instead, the pace is off-kilter and vaguely unsettling, hypnotically luring you deeper and deeper into the demented netherworld of a screw-loose imagination.
The only significant flaw that bothers me is the performance of the music. The ever-creative Danny Elfman has penned some good stuff here, particularly the Gilbert and Sullivan inspired “According to Plan” and “The Wedding Song”, and the sentimental “Tears to Shed”. But it’s all played by computer. Boo-hoo. Now I have tears to shed. First of all, electronic instruments sound like ass by comparison to a real orchestra. But the real problem is the mechanical pulse of computer driven music. It locks the songs in a breadbox and throws away the key. It renders even the best material instantly forgettable. Why do you think the songs in Nightmare sound so much better? They were played by a real orchestra, conducted by a real human being.
In Corpse Bride, the singers do their best to impart some phrasing to the material, but the damage has already been done. Finally, in the last cue of the film, a real, conducted orchestra appears. See how much better it sounds? Sigh.
I have to believe that the musical fiasco is a result of tight schedules. At least the music isn’t strictly awful. But the film doesn’t feel like a musical at all. And what a come-down from Nightmare, when they had all the time in the world to get it right.Still and all, “Corpse Bride” is a really special, one-of-a-kind film. It’s like a treasured storybook that never grows old in the nursery of your mind. Not everyone can relate to Tim Burton’s off-beat sensibilities, but those that do will likely cherish this pointy-headed oddity for a long, long time. I know I will.
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originally posted: 10/02/05 02:35:11
|OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.