Corpse Bride
directed by Tim Burton
& Mike Johnson
(Warner Bros., 2005)

Victor Van Dort (voiced by the endlessly talented Johnny Depp) lives in a world stripped of vibrant color, where muddy earth tones are all that lift the Victorian landscape from the pale, washed-out greys.

His nouveau riche parents, successful fishmongers William (Paul Whitehouse) and Nell Van Dort (Tracey Ullman), are eager to embrace the drab life of high society that their new wealth has brought them ... and to achieve the status they desire, they've arranged a marriage for the son with the lovely (or so they've heard, since no one in either family has met anyone from the other) Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson).

She is lovely, actually, and her shy charm might be enough to bring some color to the scene -- if not for her vile parents, Finnis (Albert Finney) and Maudeline Everglot (Joanna Lumley), who have both titles and status, but have tapped their financial resources dry.

Thus the scene is set for Corpse Bride, the latest in Tim Burton's parade of darkly gothic/comic stop-action films. The brash offspring of Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride obviously springs from the same fertile mind.

One accidential, but fortuitous meeting later, Victor and Victoria are now looking forward to the day they'd been dreading -- but poor Victor is still terribly nervous, and he can't get his vows right. Driven from the church by the loathsome Pastor Galswells (Christopher Lee, whose voice is perfect for the job), Victor wanders into the woods to practice his lines.

Finally inspired and getting it right at last, he grandly places the ring on a protruding tree root -- which is actually the skeletal hand of the dead woman buried there. Clawing herself from her shallow grave in dramatic zombie fashion, she sweetly accepts Victor's proposal and takes him "downstairs" to meet her friends.

The underworld is everything the living world is not. It's colorful. It's fun. There's music and dancing. There's revelry and high spirits all around. Even Victor's dead dog, now skeletal, is there to greet him. But, alas, the people are still dead and tend to lose bits off themselves at inopportune moments. And the corpse bride, Emily (Helena Bonham Carter, who's obviously having a lot of fun with the part), while sweet and adorably cute in a bluish, half-rotted and worm-eaten sort of way, isn't the bride Victor wanted.

To make matters worse, Victoria has been hastily betrothed to a seemingly wealthy stranger, Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant).

It's a great story, and the movie is visually stunning. Burton and his team of model-makers and stop-action animators did a fantastic job giving these characters an astounding semblance of life.

Unfortunately, the directors spend too much time establishing the scene in the wan world above. Both sets of parents are, frankly, detestable people, and we're forced to remain too long in their company. Then, once Victor and Emily are married, the story rockets through the more interesting bits -- not just the riotous underworld, but Emily's jealousy towards Victoria, Victor's growing fondness for Emily and so on. This, more than the shallow nastiness of the in-laws, makes the film. Give us more of the good stuff!

Danny Elfman once again provides the soundtrack, so of course it suits the mood perfectly. Still, it lacks the memorable songs that made Nightmare such a thrill.

If we hadn't already seen what Burton could do -- a dozen years earlier, to boot -- Corpse Bride would be an unmitigated marvel. As it is, it's a fun return visit to Burton's darkly funny and morbid world, but it stands in the shadow of its predecessor.

by Tom Knapp
4 March 2006

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