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Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride

Animator TIM ALLEN works with the characters for Warner Bros. Pictures’ stop-motion animated fantasy
“Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride,” starring the voices of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.
Photo by Gary Welch. ©2005, Warner Bros. Pictures.

There is a richness of detail in stop animation of which Tim Burton has become, inarguably, a master craftsman. Tim Burton has invited us back to a time before cinema became inundated with computer graphics. I’m not saying that computer graphics can’t be innovative, but now that every studio and nearly every major film employs it in some fashion or another, “Corpse Bride” has a unique opportunity to inspire and entertain in a unique way—again.

I say, “again,” because, as many know, Tim Burton was the writer of “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” a project clearly dear to his heart. It is in this particular creative space, where he is unrestrained by physical or other conventional boundaries where Burton finds his single, greatest purpose.

The film opens with Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp) rendering a drawing of a butterfly he has caged. He lets it out and it flutters across the city. While this may be regarded as a tired, Forrest Gumpian, “Segues for Dummies” exercise, Burton dispenses with it quickly before we begin to feel our heartstrings being needlessly tugged, and the camera pans to the elongated, broomlike body of a man sweeping this way and that, keeping time with the opening theme. Burton understands the aesthetics and psychology of symmetry.

As the camera continues sweeping through the city, we come upon a coach. You can hear the driver coughing and wheezing along the way as it lunges off into the distance. On board, Victor’s parents, William Van Dort (Paul Whitehouse) and Nell Van Dort (Tracey Ullman, in one of two roles), break into one of several musical numbers peppered throughout the film. This song tells us about the two families, the Van Dorts and the Everglots, and their mutual plans to marry their children into a wealth possessed by neither.

The songs are a refreshing depature from the post-Ashman/Mencken dry spell that contributed to the unrecoverable downward spiral that is Disney’s creativity. It’s not that I like musicals. I generally hate them with a passion. However, there’s a seeming necessity here. That is to say, a world as resplendent as any from Burton’s imagination almost necessitates song to celebrate it. So, why not?

Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson) is the bride to be. I’m amazed at the articulation of her facial expressions and speech. Not that “Nightmare Before Christmas” was lacking for its time, but here Burton’s production team has raised his own bar—largely for their own sake, as I can’t even think of a close second in the stop-motion animation category in the past 12 years. Victoria’s mother looks like the demented offspring of Gary Oldman’s Dracula and the sinewy Jafar from “Aladdin.”

While waiting to meet Victoria’s family, Victor sits down at the piano (a “Harryhausen”). This is a particularly beautiful scene. In a film that is inherently, largely dependent upon visuals, Burton makes us pause on an enchanting musical melody, courtesy of composer Danny Elfman. Mind you, I’m not a big fan of Elfman’s bombastic title themes, but occasionally he surprises. The only thing missing from this melody is the proper accompaniment.

Christopher Lee lends his voice to the marvelous characterization of Pastor Gallswells. I’ve always been bothered by the almost too-reverential tone of many wedding ceremonies—so heavy it almost crushes the ceremony under its own mass. The wedding rehearsal in this film is no exception. Alas, poor Victor forgets his lines—though perhaps this is a blessing in disguise.

Victor drops the ring, a bad omen. This leads through a series of events that cast Victor off into the forest. Here he practices his wedding vows, but his practice backfires when, in his exuberance at recalling the correct lines, he slips the ring on the finger of a corpse. Dozens of ravens line the tree branches, all eyes on the hapless Victor. In a rather comical manner, some of the ravens inch in a bit, as if to get a better seat for what’s about to transpire. This can’t be good.

I don’t want to spoil too many of the visual fantasies, but you have to admire the way in which Burton can take a corpse and, literally, animate it into a state of beauty. The Corpse Bride’s gown flows ethereally. While this may immediately endear us to her, Victor still needs convincing. This requires a trip to the underworld, whether he likes it or not.

In the underworld, a “Fantasia”-like sequence unfolds, with a Broadway-style introduction. These numbers, again, do not come off as stale rehashes. They’re certainly different from the songs in Burton’s prior animated romp. This particular musical number tells us how the Corpse Bride died, but very quickly. You have to be paying attention to catch the details.

Along this course, Victor realizes that this girl is the key to getting back to a life that, oddly, he doesn’t seem to be all too enthusiastic about living out—specifically, an arranged marriage.

They visit the Elder Gutknecht (Michael Gough) for counsel. He suggests a solution which requires their return to the realm of the living, but Gutknecht also offers his sage wit, “Now, why go up there when people are dying to get down here?”

Victor does seem enchanted by his de-facto bride, even though he doesn’t realize it. However, he does manage to betray her. This is not a surprise, you’ll see it coming. What’s of greatest interest in this film is how events unfold thereafter. Insult is later added to injury with the introduction of the pompous yet sinister Lord Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant in a role his voice was born to play), and the revelation of, as our skeleton M.C. previously put it, “a murder most foul.” (Sorry, I had to quote it… If for no other purpose than to elicit a silly grin from myself.)

Where the film leads to, from here, you must see for yourself. It’s not because it’s particularly unpredictable… but because it’s an honestly entertaining and charming film that resurrects the dying art of physical, stop-motion puppetry. I’m impressed by the improvements over “Nightmare Before Christmas,” especially the facial expressions and articulation of speech that appears so seamless and fluid it indicates that the technique originally pioneered by Ray Harryhausen has been honed to absolute perfection.

Sure, if I really thought about it, and picked it apart, I could say on some level that the film borrows and references prior incarnations of itself from Tim Burton’s repertoire (there’s a dinner incident reminiscent of a hypnotic and bizarre scene in “Beetlejuice”). However, I think that would be missing the entire point of a film like this. Burton doesn’t seem to know how to function outside of a certain realm. Films like this provide him an opportunity to stretch his wonderful imagination and realize visions that make little sense in any other director’s hands. Having another director take a stab “Corpse Bride” would be like having anyone other than Spielberg direct “Schindler’s List.” Would it feel right? I don’t believe so.

Years from now, I think people will still remember “The Nightmare Before Christmas” more than “Corpse Bride,” largely because it was a first for Burton and (almost) a last hurrah for stop-motion as films like “Jurassic Park” and “Terminator 2″ were ushering in an age of entire scenes, even entire films, dominated by digital visual effects. However, if I were Tim Burton, I would be proud of this creation in its own right.

For those who long for Jack Skellington, just think of the Corpse Bride herself as the Jack of this story… and of Victor, imagine Skellington having a better connection with the corporeal world through a living counterpart. Perhaps it’s cliché of me to observe it, but Victor and his Corpse Bride make great music together.

CORRECTION: Tim Burton was the writer, not the director, of “Nightmare Before Christmas.” This correction has been made to the body of this review. -Rubin

Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Running Time: 1 hour 16 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG for some scary images and action, and brief mild language. • Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures

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