When Chief Justice Mike Jackson dies, he's going to check if Emily is still available.
Die, die we all pass away
Not long ago, I was watching Chris Rock's sitcom, Everybody Hates Chris. In this particular episode, the young Chris's sister is sick and must go to the doctor. It gives the older Chris, as narrator, a chance to talk about how his parents never took them to the doctor, and relied on Robitussin to cure any malady. I had to laugh, not because the joke was particularly funny, but because I'd heard it before—years before, far more profanely, on one of Rock's comedy albums. I laughed, not only because I thought the bit was funny, which it was, but because it took something familiar and used it in new circumstances.
I feel nearly the same about Corpse Bride.
Facts of the Case
Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is a young man forced into an arranged marriage to Victoria Everglot (voiced by Emily Watson, Equilibrium). Nervous and scared on the eve of their wedding, Victor retreats to the woods to practice his vows. Rehearsing placing the ring on his bride's hand, he puts it on what he thinks is a tree branch.
Except it's not a tree branch. It's the skeletal hand of the Corpse Bride (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter, Big Fish). And she accepts the proposal.
Whisked away to the Land of the Dead, Victor learns the Bride's history. Years before, she had waited in the woods at night to meet her groom before they were to elope, only to have her dowry stolen and to be left for dead. She had waited for someone to marry her, and that man is Victor. However, he has a bride with a pulse waiting for him. Meanwhile, an aristocrat is far too eager to fill Victor's shoes as Victoria's groom. Who will Victor choose—the timid flower in the land of the living, or the enchanting siren in the land of the dead?
There's something old and familiar about Corpse Bride. Like Chris Rock's gag about rubbing Robitussin on the broken arm, this is material that Tim Burton's been recycling his entire career. How many films has he made that have gothic trappings, yet with funny, even touching underpinnings? How many of his films have socially awkward protagonists? Let's see…how 'bout all of them? (Well, very nearly so, at any rate.) The first film of his professional career, Vincent, was a stop-motion short film of a young boy's obsession with Vincent Price. It showed all the trappings of his later films—art direction borrowed from German expressionism, infatuation with the morbid, a dog. A few years later, he'd make Beetlejuice, complete with dead protagonists, the land of the dead, and a dog. Edward Scissorhands, perhaps his best film, is also his defining moment. Alternately colored loud and garish, dark and monochromatic. Funny and tragically touching. Dogs. Lots of dogs. Oh, I could go on, but you get the picture. Some of his intervening films have veered in other directions, but with Corpse Bride, you're getting classic Burton. It even has a dog.
Except, there's something different about Corpse Bride. Sure, it looks the same. It has the same outsider protagonist. It's stop-motion animated, like Vincent or The Nightmare Before Christmas. Danny Elfman brings his inestimable talents to the music, as he has for every Burton feature film (with the exception of Ed Wood). But, something's clearly different in its message. Boil down any Burton film made between 1984 and 1999, and you have the story of a social misfit who doesn't appreciate his uniqueness and discovers that the best contribution he can make to society is to be himself. It wasn't until Planet of the Apes that he deviated from that message, and while his subsequent films have all featured the "outsider" protagonist with whom he has an affinity, the conclusion isn't the same. Big Fish's Edward Bloom was already convinced of his uniqueness and had to show his value to his son. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's Willy Wonka had to learn the value of family. What do you get in Corpse Bride? Well, we're going to have to venture into "spoiler" territory to get to that…
Corpse Bride's Victor is clearly different. His parents are forcing him into marriage to bolster their social standing. He's more interested in his artwork, or studying butterflies, or something. Definitely not in getting married. Unlike other Burton protagonists, Victor isn't clearly defined—perhaps because he doesn't really know who he is, either. There's nothing to identify with, like there is with Edward Scissorhands or Jack Skellington. He seems to want more than his static Victorian life, but he doesn't know what that is. Then when he meets Emily, the Corpse Bride, she's a breath of fresh air. She's vibrant and exciting, nothing at all like Victoria, the repressed ideal of a proper socialite wife. Victor seems drawn to Emily, but feels an obligation to Victoria. When Victoria weds Lord Barkis (voiced with oily charm by Richard E. Grant, Gosford Park), he feels free to marry Emily, going as far as to willingly accept that he'll have to die to do it. Yet then when Lord Barkis is revealed to be Emily's murderous former groom and is killed, Victor simply accepts that Emily doesn't want him and he's content to stay in the land of the living with his mouse of a bride. This doesn't strike me as a Burtoneque finale. Burton's films have always stressed that conformity was not the road to self-worth—why else have they been accepted by legions of social misfits?—yet here's someone who benignly accepts the path that society has set out for him. Victor will end up just like his parents, or worse, her parents—comfortable in his social standing, merely tolerant of his spouse, and stifled of his creativity.
It's a marked change in Burton's directorial worldview. It's no wonder—he's a long way from the 26-year-old who made Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. The past few years have brought many changes to him personally. Both of his parents have passed away since the release of Planet of the Apes in 2001. His dog died—Poppy, the Chihuahua who starred in Mars Attacks! He ended a nine-year romantic relationship with Lisa Marie, who seemed like his soul mate and was often credited (by both himself and others) as his muse. He became involved with Helena Bonham Carter. The two are married now and have a son, though their relationship is far from conventional; they keep separate residences, though next door to each other, and she still has to audition for his films (though she's appeared in everything he's made since they met on the set of Planet of the Apes). Age, experience, life changes, and success are bound to mellow anyone. Perhaps, at this point in his life, Burton doesn't feel quite so alone anymore.
Change in viewpoint aside, Corpse Bride is exactly what you'd expect it to be: expertly animated and charming in its own way, once you get past the creepy title and subject matter. There's only four musical numbers, about half the number in The Nightmare Before Christmas: "According to Plan," a somber opening that's more expository than entertaining; "Remains of the Day," a rollicking number sung with gusto by Danny Elfman; "The Wedding Song," which is mostly filler; and "Tears to Shed," which gives the Corpse Bride a chance to spill her soul. If you don't feel for the poor dead lass at the end, your heart must already be dead. While Elfman's musical score is one of his best and most inspired in years, the musical numbers are a little disappointing. "According to Plan" and "The Wedding Song" are there to move the story along. "Tears to Shed" is excellent, but heartbreaking. However, "Remains of the Day" is downright incredible, a phantasmagorically perfect melding of animation, storytelling, and music. It may very well be the best piece of music Danny Elfman has yet to write for a film. That's something I don't say lightly; after all, this is the man who wrote not only the amazing music for The Nightmare Before Christmas and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but also the theme song to Weird Science. It tells the Corpse Bride's backstory, which is touching, but does it in such a jazzy way you can't help but tap your toes. It's bathed in garish primary colors, accented with black and white and more skeletons than a Dia del Muertos celebration (or an Oingo Boingo album cover). It really gives you a taste of the fun of Burton's vision of the afterlife—not Heaven, not Hell, nothing religious about it. It's a place where people can finally let loose, particularly when contrasted with the monochrome boringness of the land of the living. The character design is classic Burton—you can see the echoes of characters from Vincent and The Nightmare Before Christmas, as well as his pencil artwork, like the illustrations accompanying his poems in The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy. (Vincent looks exactly like one of the incidental illustrations of "number two boy," a runner-up in a staring contest; that particular drawing looked so much like a Burton self-portrait that I chose it for the mascot of The Tim Burton Collective, a Burton fansite I founded but have since passed along to other fans.)
The voice acting is perhaps some of the best you will find in an animated tale. Like many silver-screen animated pieces produced nowadays, few of the cast members are animation voiceover artists by trade. Many of the actors have worked with Burton before in his live-action films—Johnny Depp (making this his fifth Burton collaboration), Helena Bonham Carter (her fourth in as many years), Christopher Lee (his third), Albert Finney (his second), Michael Gough (his fourth), and Deep Roy (his third). The cast is uniformly excellent, very expressive and losing all traces of their off-screen personae (except for Christopher Lee, who sounds, as always, exactly like Christopher Lee—and that's exactly how it should be). The highlight, by far, is Helena Bonham Carter. She breathes such life and vibrancy into Emily, the Corpse Bride, that you feel her every emotion with absolute clarity. She makes Emily smart and sexy and incredibly vulnerable. If I had one complaint about the film, it's that you identify so closely with Emily that it's a shame not to see her absolutely happy at the end of the film. While she's the one who chooses not to be with Victor and considers herself to be free, it just didn't feel right for her not to be the one who get herself a man.
Corpse Bride is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Considering it was filmed digitally (they used 12-megabit digital still cameras to record the animation), you could expect nothing less than perfection, and that's what you get. The picture is one of the best I've seen, bright, bold, and beautiful, masterfully detailed, and crystal clear. There's no digital noise or edge enhancement. In a word: wow. Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1 in English, French, and Spanish. The music is the dominant element, though you get directional elements from things like crows flying overhead.
Extra content consists mostly of short featurettes highlighting various elements of the production. These featurettes are filled with interviews with animators, designers, and producers, as well as Tim Burton, Danny Elfman, and members of the cast. The best of these shorts is one that shows several scenes from the film side by side with footage of the actors recording the lines. Oh, and you get a trailer for the film and an artwork gallery.
But, one feature stands above the rest. It used to be included on nearly every disc of a film scored by Danny Elfman, but has been absent for several years. I speak of the isolated score audio track, and here it makes a glorious return. Presented, like the film itself, in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, it is strictly the score, so no vocals with the musical numbers. I tell you, Corpse Bride almost works as a silent film. Musicals have made a comeback, so why not silents?
Where does Corpse Bride sit in the Burton canon? If you had asked this ardent fan back when it was released, I wouldn't have been that happy with it. The ending really bothered me, though after a few viewings (I've probably watched the movie three or four times in the past week while writing this review) I've come to accept it. At first, it seemed like a pale shadow of The Nightmare Before Christmas, or at least paled in comparison to that film, my favorite from my favorite director. (Yeah, yeah…Henry Selick directed it, but who really cares? It's a Burton film to the core.) But, is it really fair to compare a new discovery with a film you've lived with for over ten years, seen countless times, that you can—and do—sing along with every song? Hardly. The fact is, Corpse Bride is one of Tim Burton's most creative and enjoyable films, a return to the things that his fans love so dearly in his work. It's a little creepy, but all in good fun. It's beautifully animated, and will touch your heart like no other Burton film.
And finally, a note to my fellow parents out there. I have a three-year-old son. Now, granted, he's grown up on a steady diet of Tim Burton. He's been watching The Nightmare Before Christmas since he was old enough to watch movies, and he has great fun with Mars Attacks! and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. I took him to see Corpse Bride in the theater, and he loved it. He's watched it with me every time I've watched it on DVD. He doesn't find it scary at all, unlike say, Monsters Inc., which will always result in him waking up in the middle of the night with nightmares. The title certainly sounds macabre, but it's far from scary. Trust me, give yourself a break from Finding Nemo and give this one a spin.
No need to fetch me musket—not guilty!
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