Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride

In the DVD edition of his stunning film, Tim Burton recalls the process of working on this film, which was shot during “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” particularly his fifth collaboration with Johnny Depp.
“I like working with Johnny, because each time he brings something new, and the character here just happens to bear a striking resemblance to him.”

Helena Bonham Carter, Burton’s real-life companion, recalls how, “I actually had to audition for the part. You’d think because I had Tim’s baby, I’d have easy access to the part. But instead I had to prove that I was right for it.”

At the time, the filmmaking seemed to Burton like “no foreseeable end in sight. All animation requires patience, especially stop-motion, which is really like Frankenstein or Pinocchio, where you’re breathing life into an inanimate object.”

Film Review

The ghost of Edgar Allan Poe looms large over “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride,” a visually stunning macabre musical stop-animation that’s just as macabre and haunting as his 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

The story centers on Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp), a young man who is whisked away to the underworld and wed to a mysterious Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter), while his real bride, Victoria (Emily Watson), waits bereft in the land of the living.

In the guise of a family film and kids fable, Burton has made a spirited yet poignant film about a tortured romance and erotic obsession that evokes Poe, Frankenstein, Edward Gorey, and Burton’s own work.

Co-directed with Mike Johnson (TV’s “The PJs”), “Corpse Bride” is Burton’s first stop-motion animation feature since 1996’s “James and the Giant Peach,” which he produced. Burton last used stop-motion animation as co-director in “Nightmare Before Christmas,” made at Disney just before the introduction of more sophisticated CGI features. Now, with the new technology, he can accomplish much more.

“Corpse Bride” is only 77-minute-long, but this being stop-motion animation, every second counts. “Stop-animation requires time and patience. It’s really like Frankenstein or Pinocchio, where you’re breathing life into an inanimate object,” Burton has said about the process, though he might as well have described the film itself, which embodies the dark spirit of Frankenstein and other noir and horror flicks.

Reportedly, Burton drew out just a few sketches before giving free rein to character designer Carlos Grangel. The stop-motion technique means taking puppets–about a foot tall–and painstakingly moving them half a millimeter at a time to achieve a subtlety of expression beyond the range of CGI. A whole workday, according to the producers, may produce about a second or two of usable footage.

Just when Burton began to repeat himself with movies that, despite different genres and subjects, began to look more or less the same, comes this pert project to remind us what a singular artist he is when he has personal affinity with his material. Burton made “Corpse Bride” while shooting the children’s tale “Charlie and Chocolate Factory,” thus joining Spielberg in overseeing two major but vastly different projects in the same year; Spielberg’s movies are “War of the Worlds” and “Munich.”

This is Burton’s fifth collaboration with Johnny Depp, and it’s a much more fruitful than their previous, “Charlie and the Chocolate factory.” “Corpse Bride” is edgier, riskier, and more remarkable than “Charlie,” and Depp is far more interesting and touching as a voice in the animation than as an actor in the live action film.

The movie presents Burton an opportunity to display his wickedly off-kilter sensibility that he didn’t have in “Planet of the Apes” or “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” In “Corpse Bride,” Burton, Johnson, and production designer Alex McDowell have created a visually impressive Victorian-era milieu that recalls the expressionist style of German films of the silent era.

“Corpse Bride” is both playfully British in its critique of social class and darkly sardonic. Like most of Burton’s visionary films, it boasts macabre humor, amazing visuals, and deliberately grotesque and amusing characterizations.

It’s inspired by a Russian folk tale, set in an Eastern Europe village, about a bride who died on her wedding day. Though dead, she has not given up on love for a living man. Screenwriters John August, Caroline Thompson, and Pamela Pettler have updated the story to a class-conscious, highly repressed Victorian England, naming their protagonists Victor and Victoria!

The opening number, “According to Plan,” introduces two sets of parents, the snooty old-money Everglots and the bourgeois Van Dorts, whose respective offspring are being forced into an arranged marriage.

As he did in Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands,” Depp brings a touching tenderness and haunting quality to Victor Van Dort, a shy, timid soul on his way to being an eternal bachelor until his parents (Tracey Ullman and Paul Whitehouse) arrange to marry him off to shy Victoria (Emily Watson), the daughter of the titled but poor Everglots (Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney).

Shy, sensitive Victor is a gifted pianist who enchants his betrothed, the lovely but equally timid Victoria Everglot. Victor is so nervous at the wedding rehearsal that he is having trouble memorizing his vows. The pastor (ominous Christopher Lee, who played Depp’s father in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) asks him to leave until he learns his vows.

A tragic misunderstanding occurs when Victor, walking alone in the forest at night practicing his lines, happens to recite his vows over a dead woman’s grave. He puts the ring on a tree, and lo and behold, the tree turns into a dead woman, the Corpse Bride, in a wedding gown. In a scene that pays a playful tribute to “Carrie,” the Corpse Bride grabs Victor. The Bride quickly accepts his proposal, and smitten with her new husband, she whisks Victor off to the underworld.

Victor likes Victoria, but the Corpse Bride, voiced with sweet yet witty mischief by Helena Bonham Carter is both possessive and seductive. The movie may be a feast to our eyes, but it’s the haunting love triangle that sustains our attention.

Steeped in noir vocabulary, the film was shot by lenser Pete Kozachik’s, who goes for sharp high-angles, striking tracking shots, and gloomy shadows, and moody atmosphere. The nineteenth century village is populated by exaggerated clay puppets that suggest Edgar Allan Poe, with a touch of Edward Gorey’s illustrations.

This being Burton’s film, the Land of the Dead is depicted as more colorful, livelier, and liberated than that the Land of the Living, described by the inhabitants as “Upstairs.” While muted colors represent the world of the living, a rich palette of reds and other bright hues are used for the dead. There’s a permanent overcast over the Land of the Living that yields a rich monochromatic black and white, with only faint shades of color. Indeed, the Land of the Dead is a raucous place, ablaze in color, boasting an open bar, with a bodiless head as the Head Waiter, the Ball and Sockett Pub. The pub has its own band, the Skeletones, led by hep cat Bonejangles, voiced by the film’s composer, Danny Elfman.

One of the most dazzling visual effects is a wisecracking maggot (Enn Reitel), which has taken up permanent residence in the eye socket of the Corpse Bride occasionally gets out–with vengeance. “Screw ’em,” says the maggot to the Corpse Bride, “If I hadn’t just been sitting there, I would have thought you’d lost your mind.”

The puppets come in all shapes and sizes, but the central figures are tall and thin with facial expressions reminiscent of their voice actors, who get the right tone and tenor for their individual characters. Depp is in fine, self-effacing form as the bumbling aesthete Victor. Voiced by Helena Bonham Carter with tenderness and tartness, the Corpse Bride is a beguiling creation. Joanna Lumley is a riot as the outrageously snotty Maudeline Everglot, and so are the other actors who play the two sets of parents.

Will “Corpse Bride” be nominated for the Best Animation Oscar

“Nightmare Before Christmas” was nominated for one Oscar, Visual effects by Pete Kozachik, Eric Leighton, Ariel Velasco Shaw, and Gordon Baker (the winner was “Jurassic Park”), but that was before the Academy established a distinct category for animation. The story idea for “Nightmare” came from Burton right after making “Beetle Juice,” “Batman,” and “Edward Scissorhands,” and reportedly, Burton has been thinking of another stop-motion animation since “Nightmare.”

For that 1993 picture, Caroline Thompson wrote the script, Henry Selick co-directed, and Danny Elfman did the score and songs. The same creators, more or less, are now responsible for “Corpse Bride.”

The mixture of whimsy and the gently macabre was not to all tastes, and commercially, “Nightmare” enjoyed only a moderate success, but there was no denying the movie was dazzling. “Corpse Bride” presents a similar marketing problem, namely, how to attract children and families to such dark and macabre tale. On the other hand, the film sustains a delicate balance of the eerie and the whimsical, which should appeal to mature viewers.

Whatever the marketing and commercial problems are, artistically, “Corpse Bride” brims with inventive characters, evocative sets, and sly humor, and the animation is remarkably witty and stunningly beautiful. My only reservation concerns Elfman’s songs: There are not many of them, and despite variegated styles (including jazz), they are not very memorable.

Considering its running time, the film’s texture is rich and dense, offering many death jokes, inside puns, and graphic and cultural references to “Beetle Juice” and “Nightmare Before Christmas.” With its ghoulish touches, and ravishing gothic romance, “Corpse Bride” is inspired filmmaking at its best.

Darkly humorous yet poignant, “Corpse Bride” is a spectacular entertainment that’s also a work of art, a rare combo for a Hollywood movie coming out of the studio system.