What must Tim Burton think of love for his films to be such wintry odes to separation and jilted dreams? His couples circle without touching in the fresco of their lives, frozen in the moment that they comprehend their love but before they can make it real, forever apart like hands reaching for each other in a painting. Is this why Burton compulsively casts Helena Bonham Carter, his ex-girlfriend, fantasy, inamorata, lost star? Is it for his own distant longing that he makes living people walking corpses while the dead roam free to forget what living was good for in the first place?
In this way, Johnny Depp is his perfect avatar—the person in an actor that Burton must imagine his spirit to be. Depp saturates Corpse Bride (like Sweeney Todd after it) with Burton’s fumbling spirit, while Carter reduces their insanity to a truth, like the person that longing wishes it could be, but never gets around to it. Burton directs this into his style with a fastidious sense of plot – he always does this – but unlike a lot of his earlier adventures, this unravels Corpse Bride. He should have refined the artistic whimsy, that dislocated poetry Burton makes so well when filtering a Gothic nightmare through the sieve of his childlike mind—such was the brilliance of Sweeney Todd, Sleepy Hollow, and Batman Returns. Corpse Bride has a three-act bore for a skeleton. For all its grossness, in its narrative it’s as charmlessly predictable as a greeting card.
But what of its muscles, gristle, and peeling skin, its organs and juices and still-beating heart? As a cocktail of anatomy shaken into an alluring universe of dead swingers and necrophilia, it’s still a joyful, if fleeting, stylistic playground for the little Vincent in us.
Burton must have realized the anatomist’s most ironic standing joke: the human skull is always smiling. When Victor Van Dort (Depp) plunges prematurely into the afterlife beneath his decrepit fishing village, he’s greeted by cool cat Jazzers and Napoleonic comedians and chefs and waiters and jokesters, all spooky skeletons with more pep now that they have less skin to worry about. The world below is a swingin’ place apparently, all dance numbers and theatrical lighting, death puns and dutch angles. When practicing his wedding vows to Victoria (Emily Watson), the poor chap betroths himself to the outstretched arm of the Corpse Bride (Carter). This, I think, is where the plot should have stopped: I kept hoping that they'd stop with all this story nonsense and get on with the honeymoon.
Instead, the couple rises to the land of the living, then back to the grave, then back again. There’s wedding intrigue involving both sets of parents, and the opportunistic Lord Barkis (Richard E. Grant). I’m just not going to talk about it. Corpse Bride has 77 minutes to dazzle with its artistry, yet it wastes its time with misinformation stories, a plot twist telegraphed so obviously it physically hurts, and generally inessential and confusing background noise. One minute, it’s total taboo to visit the living world, then impossible, then the whole zombie town climbs out of their graves on a whim. Since I’d rather dwell on the characters’ role in their dioramic little world, and not their pretensions of a story, I’ll leave the plot at this: better to leave wedding drama to the dramatists, Mr. Burton (or at least: to the lucky in love).
As intangible as plot seems to be for Burton, characterization is his gift to inhumanity. The Nightmare Before Christmas was neither directed nor supervised by Burton, yet by designing the characters he somehow imbued every textured inch of that movie with his unmistakable artistic signature. He has a charming habit of over-exaggeration—his characters become perfect physical manifestations of their spirits. This is one of the advantages of stop-motion models, with which character can be built, not simply acted. From Toadish Mr. Everglott (Albert Finney) to the spindly shadow of Victor himself, every character in Corpse Bride walks and dances and falls themselves into existence. But it’s difficult to enjoy them since it’s always in service to the plot, whose bones just don’t swing like its art does.
The songs themselves, where they should validate the story's complexity, actually show its deficit. Danny Elfman returns from Nightmare to pen a more outright jokey score for Corpse Bride, with styles ranging from the swing beats of the Bride’s backstory song in the neon bar to the classical rifts of a recurring piano theme. Yet the songs seem merely to come out of the desire to have songs and to put them somewhere, as opposed to Henry Selick’s deftly woven tapestry of musical storytelling. Most heinously, there seems to be no “title song,” no central melody against which the story plays its separate chords. In Nightmare it was “Jack’s Lament,” the song on the tree stump hill that gave the title character his yearning spirit and poetic grace. Every song in Corpse Bride is “Oogie Boogie’s Song.”
For every song in a musical to feel “extra,” there must be some deficiency in the characters’ plight. And so there is—Corpse Bride struggles to define or challenge a main character, or even to invest in one plight particularly. Victor appears to be the protagonist, since his actions progress the plot, but the story’s central figure is clearly the titular Bride, who has the plight, the true adversity, and the clear motivation. It doesn’t help Victor’s case that even against the ashen living and Technicolor dead, the Bride is a swooning vision of nightmarish yet gentle beauty. Even the film’s most effective comedy is when something transgresses her ethereal grace, such as when partway through an otherworldly twirl, veil flapping like the tail of a mystic fog, her leg pops off.
I can imagine a vastly better film that casts her in the clear lead, begins with her death, eliminates the wedding drama entirely, and centers on her passing into the real world as a corpse to court a new husband, as in a grim romantic fable like a reverse Beetlejuice, even as a counterpoint to the true love Disney formula. Victor, too feckless to make an effective bridegroom for a romantic drama, might have played the sensitive necrophiliac more to the tastes of Burton's idea of love. Instead, the misinformation, the woman Victor leaves behind, and the true-love shtick all seem to be fragments of a story yet to be told, one in which the main couple remain apart throughout the film. How can models built specifically and played by people known to have chemistry be rendered so incompatible?
Comedy in Corpse Bride, when not involving the Bride’s effective body humor, doesn’t help matters. It usually consists of puns (“dead end,” Victor chirps, “the living are dying to get here,” a skeleton cackles). I haven’t seen Burton default on his whimsy so often for the sake of a literal joke. Just as he is incapable of structuring a dramatic three acts, as though he’s a member of another species, punchlines are simply beyond his grasp. There’s also a distracting Peter Lorre reference in the form of a maggot that hides in the Bride’s skull. Why? The screenplay was written by a trio of Burton staples, but if Burton can get credit for a movie just for drawing its characters, I feel he deserves the blame as a director even if it was the boneheaded script that diluted his imagination.
Oh, now I discover that Mike Johnson, the stop-motion animator, directed Corpse Bride on a daily basis while Burton just dictated his vision to him. Well that sounds almost ideal. At least we could credit Burton for his in-theory whimsy and not endure his management.
Yet, like most of Burton's work, Corpse Bride doesn't work as well as you want it to--like the most frustrating romantic comedies, this guy is obsessed with the wrong woman. And yet, also like most of Burton's work, even work just tangentially associated with him, this movie sticks in my brain. I still savor it sometimes on a rainy day. He provides something no one else can—a movie made by an outcast, by the weird kid at the back of the class, and about them, and for them. His indulgences don’t always produce great drama, but the animation folks at Laika are certainly apt at enabling his fantasia of dreary punchlines and the occasional flutter of a heartbeat. So the fluid, dynamically-lit models may be taken frame for frame in every moment as hauntingly romantic, but remember: they exist in the recesses, not of their own nonexistent plight, but of their lovelorn artist-creator’s heart.
The problem is just that among Burton’s wonderfully detached odysseys of near-lovemaking, Corpse Bride seems to strive in its story, even knee-deep in its own weirdness, for some shred of relatability. A quick search through Burton’s art should tell you what a lost cause that is.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
|Victor Van Dort||Johnny Depp|
|Emily, the Corpse Bride||Helena Bonham Carter|
|Victoria Everglot||Emily Watson|
|Nell Van Dort||Tracey Ullman|
|William Van Dort||Paul Whitehouse|
|Barkis Bittern||Richard E. Grant|
|Finis Everglot||Albert Finney|