Corpse Bride HHHII
If you line them all up, the films of Tim Burton start to look like a Mexican Day of the Dead parade. From the delightful, career-launching short "Frankenweenie" to the new animated feature Corpse Bride, the director's gothic images and modestly morbid themes suggest that death, mankind's most nagging preoccupation, might be no big deal.
Dying can bring a few headaches, like the wacky bureaucracy of Beetlejuice's afterlife, but it doesn't seem so bad. Even on Earth, the deceased find immortality in Ed Wood's B-movies or Big Fish's tall tales. The accoutrements of the dead -- lovingly crafted cemeteries, bat caves, haunted houses -- look far more glamorous than anything in the light of day. If death is cool -- or even just cute -- can it really be that fearsome?
Loosely based on a Russian folk tale, Corpse Bride makes death explicitly seem far more fun than life. Young Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp), another of Burton's misunderstood artiste heroes, dreads his arranged marriage to Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson). Nevertheless, he finds Victoria to be a kindred spirit who's equally smothered by their remote village's cobwebbed traditions.
But while rehearsing his vows in some spooky woods, Victor finds himself mistakenly married to a deceased, spellbound bride (Helena Bonham Carter). The bride may be part skeleton, but the saucy smile at the corners of her mouth proves she's still pretty hot.
Every aspect of Corpse Bride marks the contrast between the subterranean Land of the Dead and life on Earth. Evoking the darkly comic cartoons of Edward Gorey, Victor's village is almost entirely pallid and monochromatic. Burton pours palpable affection into the village's cast of humorously grotesque caricatures, all either impossibly spindly or squat, as if unbound by the laws of gravity and anatomy. Victoria's snobby mother has a swooping hairdo that looks like an inverted scrotum. The zestfully nasty vocal work from Joanna Lumley, Albert Finney, Richard E. Grant and Christopher Lee match their funhouse physiques.
Meanwhile, the ramshackle, raucous Land of the Dead features inhabitants in various states of decay, but never disgustingly so -- the skulls could be candy. Compared to the village's perpetually overcast skies, the necropolis, bursting with music and laughter, seems lit by the warm glow of a funeral pyre. The hues don't look healthy -- they're mostly rotting browns and moldy greens -- but they're better than no color at all.
Victor tries to put asunder his unholy wedlock, even though he grows fond of the kindhearted Bride. Still, the script could use more meat on its bones. Victor has some lovely moments bonding with Victoria and, later, the Bride over piano keyboards, but the overall premise seems suitable for a half-hour short. Corpse Bride features four musical numbers composed by Danny Elfman, but except for a rollicking Cab Calloway-style jazz number, complete with dancing skeletons, the songs feel like padding.
Nearly every frame of Corpse Bride offers a memorable tableau, but the film pales by comparison to The Nightmare Before Christmas. The director's previous stop-motion animated film found enormous visual invention in the mix of misshapen monsters and holiday traditions. Corpse Bride's marriage of living and dead doesn't provide an equal treasure chest, although it makes for some clever jokes, including slapstick with rolling eyeballs. (It's worth noting that Christmas director Henry Selick showed a keener sense of comic timing than Burton, who co-directed Corpse Bride with animator Mike Johnson.)
Corpse Bride pays off at its climax when the dead rise from graves for some unlikely family reunions. The nonconformists triumph over convention and the final shot conveys a liberating sense of transcendence, suitable for a storybook fantasy. Still, Burton seems a bit blasé about mortality, treating it as no more menacing than an uninvited party guest. Giving death an ironic shrug can be a comforting substitute for actually dealing with its realities. But for all of Tim Burton's visionary creativity, he's whistling in a graveyard.