Shy pianist Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") is pleased about his arranged marriage to Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson, "Red Dragon") now that he's met her, but after three hours of rehearsal he still can't memorize the ceremony vows correctly. With the wedding the next morning, Victor wanders into the woods to practice and, thinking he's slipping the ring onto a twig, inadvertently puts it onto the bony finger of the deceased Emily, who is thrilled to become Victor's "Corpse Bride."
There is no question that Tim Burton is an extraordinary visualist with his own, unique sensibility, but as a director he hasn't told a gripping story on film since 1994. "Corpse Bride" is simply marvelous to look at, but it isn't very involving or funny and its songs (score and songs composed Danny Elfman, formerly of Oingo Boingo, who also gives voice to Bonejangles) are bland. Burton's prior stop motion animations, 1993's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and, to a lesser extent, 1996's "James and the Giant Peach," both of which he produced (Henry Selick directed), were far more memorable works, with "Nightmare's" songs worthy of Broadway. Still, "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" is pretty good as disappointments go.
Before he's had a chance to realize he's unwittingly gotten hitched, Victor's Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carte, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") whisks him to the land of the dead, a place that is ironically far more colorful than the land of the living (Burton and codirector Mike Johnson (TV's "The PJs" and an animator on "James and the Giant Peach") have desaturated the 'living' colors so that they are almost black and white whereas the dead tend towards naturally bluish tints and wear bright clothing). Victor must trick his bride to get back to Victoria, whose parents, the aristocratic but destitute Maudeline (Joanna Lumley, TV's "Absolutely Fabulous") and Finnis Everglot (Albert Finney, "Big Fish"), have already betrothed her to the conniving Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant, "Gosford Park," "Bright Young Things"). Three of the four crossed lovers decide to do the right thing and of course, all ends well.
There are a few laughs to be had, mostly puns on the dead like Paul, the head waiter who's really just a head. It is the production design and art direction that this movie is all about, however, and it is all typically Burton with his curlicued trees and large eyed creatures. Victor himself has the dark-circled orbs of a Gashlycrumb Tiny. The Corpse Bride is the most stunning of half rotted creatures with one arm and leg reduced to bones, a hole in her cheek and an eye that pops out. The imperious mother Everglot has a head shaped like a wasp body, her chin where the stinger would be, and her butler Emile literally has his nose in the air, just like the obsequious head waiter of "Triplets of Belleville." Another nicely designed creature is Elder Gutknecht (Michael Gough, "Sleepy Hollow"), a skeleton with half specs and wispy trailing beard of cobwebs, but many of the undead denizens seem like residents of Halloweentown.
The animation is mostly superb (and keep your eyes peeled for a little homage to an old master of the style, Ray Harryhausen.) Eyes jitter slightly back and forth aping the way our own eyes move and the bride's veil just about flutters in the breeze. Victor, delighted to be reunited with his dead dog Scraps, asks the reassembled bones to roll over and the skeleton undulates like a wave of piano keys. Still, one wonders why a scene where Victoria moves across the landscape like a bobbing puppet with jerky, unrealistic movements, was allowed to remain when the rest of the film is so slavishly detailed.
The three leads do spot on vocal work. Depp makes the bookish Victor slightly poncy with affected, clipped speech. Watson gives Victoria an air of refinement tinged with kindness whereas Bonham Carter's Emily is a bit more breezy and free-wheeling. The most outlandish characterization is provided by Richard E. Grant, however, doing his best Dick Dastardly impersonation. Vocal actor Enn Reitel does a Peter Lorre impression as the bride's maggot, surely one of the more original mascots in animation history.
In a gloomy Victorian town, the aristocratic but penniless Maudeline and Finis Everglot (voices of Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney) arrange a marriage of convenience for their daughter, Victoria (voice of Emily Watson). The low-born but wealthy canned fish-fortuned nouveau riche Nell and William Van Dort (voices of Tracey Ullman and Paul Whitehouse) want into high society and agree to marry their shy son, Victor, to the Everglot’s daughter. But, when Victor makes a mess of the wedding practice, he scurries to the nearby dark forest to rehearse his vows. His recitation goes perfectly and he places the wedding ring on a gnarled root sticking out of the ground. But, it isn’t a root and Victor quickly learns that he has taken on a “Corpse Bride.”
Tim Burton, the versatile filmmaker who produced the pair of stop-motion animated classics, “Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach,” shares the director’s helm with first-timer Mike Johnson in this latest foray into the filmmaking method pioneered by the great Ray Harryhausen. (There is, if you pay attention during “Corpse Bride,” a brief homage to the stop-motion maestro.) Their effort, while visually brilliant, is less than so with its story.
When Victor places the ring on the root, it turns into the hand of the title character and he is pulled down into the world of the dead. Once there, he only wants to return to the world of the living and marry Victoria but his new bride, Emily (voice of Helena Bonham Carter), has distinctly different ideas. Victor must use his wiles to find away to return home to his new, living love.
The slight story, by John August, Caroline Thompson and Pamela Pettler, is cute and mildly entertaining but, considering the subject matter, lacks the pathos that imbued the similarly themed “A Nightmare Before Christmas.” That film also had a number of memorable songs by Danny Elfman that are not nearly duplicated in the Elfman-scored “Corpse Bride.” These two factors make Burton’s latest less than satisfying to a longtime fan like me.
The production design and first-rate stop motion photography are a real draw for “Corpse Bride.” When we meet the living characters in their Victorian digs its all monochromatic in shades of blue and gray, giving the land of the living a gloomy, dour look. After Victor makes his inadvertent vows to Emily and is dragged down to the land of the dead, the film takes on a bright, colorful tone as the denizens of the underworld have developed a lust for, uh, life. When you’re dead and have nothing to lose you begin to enjoy the things, like having fun, that you should have when alive. The filmmakers convey this particular sentiment quite well. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to sustain the film.
The vocal talents are game, if mostly uninspired. Johnny Depp’s voicing of Victor could have been done by any competent voice actor and Depp does not put any real personality into the role. Helena Bonham Carte, as Emily, benefits remarkably by the character’s artistic design that makes the decomposing bride a real babe. Emily Watson, like Depp, is unremarkable as Victoria. The Everglot and Van Dort parents are competently voiced by the veteran actors but it is Richard E. Grant as the dastardly Lord Barkis Bittern who makes the most out of his villain. Others, such as the terrific vocal talent of Jane Horrocks (Bubble from English TV’s “Absolutely Fabulous” and the tour-de-force perf in the under-appreciated “Little Voice”), are given too short shrift, mainly due to the slight story. Enn Reitel does do a decent job channeling the late Peter Lorre as the maggot inhabiting Emily’s body.
I have to give a positive grade to “Corpse Bride” on the basis of production and fabulous animation efforts. I was hoping to be bowled over as I was with A Nightmare Before Christmas” but, alas, I was not. I give it a B-.
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