Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

(Tim Burton & Mike Johnson, USA, 2005)


The title is strange – since this is not really a movie about Tim Burton's marriage to a corpse – but it well indicates a certain anxiety about authorship that occasionally overtakes directors since the day when Federico Fellini was the first to officially incorporate his surname into a film title.

There is in fact a co-director, animator Mike Johnson, who receives equal billing in the credits (he previously worked on The Nightmare Before Christmas [1993] and James and the Giant Peach [1996]). Burton, however, wants us to be absolutely clear whose "vision" is being put across in this swift and merry tale of the undead.

Since Beetlejuice (1988), Burton has deftly exploited a certain imaginative concept that allows him to dip daintily into the "dark side" while ending up firmly on the sunny side of the street. There is no moral ledger of good or evil, no Heaven or Hell, in his work – only the living and the dead, occupying separate realms. The land of the dead is a spooky but fundamentally whimsical place for Burton, and never more so than in Corpse Bride.

Bones break, eyeballs fall from skull sockets and maggots scoot around bodily remains, but this never stops the eternal round of Cab Calloway-style musical numbers, drinking and revelry. The dead, in fact, seem to have a lot more fun than the stuffy, repressed living – exactly as in the tale in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities where the "real" world is characterised by anal retention, and the "shadow world" is where everyone lets go. Like Calvino, Burton certainly knows how to appeal to the sensibility of small children.

The only thing that upsets the cosmic balance of these two worlds is when Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp), momentarily fleeing the prospect of an arranged marriage to Victoria (Emily Watson), finds himself in a dark wood, placing his wedding ring on a twig – which just happens to be the finger of the Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter), buried in the ground.

Burton, whether in his live action or animation projects, tends to be less interested in plot intrigue than what we might call "description" – the leisurely evocation of a milieu, a period, a style of architecture, a way of life (or death). There are few plot complications in Corpse Bride, but the story really comes to life in the scenes where Victoria and the Bride compete for the attention of the confused Victor, who only wants to do good by everyone.

As a work of animation, Corpse Bride is inventive and ingenious – betting on the now old-fashioned appeal of stop motion animation with models (subtly enhanced with digital processes). Burton tips his hat to Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963), but he might be better advised, at this point, to revisit the more extreme and violent style of Harryhausen's mentor, Willis O'Brien (King Kong, 1933). Danny Elfman's jaunty musical stylings are also becoming a little too familiar and repetitive.

However, a film like Corpse Bride stands or falls on whether it arouses a sense of wonder in us. And here there can be no doubt that Burton's visual imagination indeed wins the day. The sight of the Bride dancing in her tattered dress in the moonlight takes us back to the finest passages of Edward Scissorhands (1990), Ed Wood (1994) or Sleepy Hollow (1999).

MORE Burton: Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Mars Attacks!, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure

© Adrian Martin November 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search