Dir: Tim Burton/Mike Johnson, 2005, UK 78 mins
Cast (voices): Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Albert Finney, Joanna Lumley, Paul Whitehouse, Tracey Ullman, Jane Horrocks, Richard E. Grant, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Danny Elfma
Barely months since Tim Burton engorged audiences with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s visual feast, Hollywood’s crown-prince of fairytales returns to darken our door with Corpse Bride, an animated musical fantasy in the same Plasticine-mould as 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas whose ubiquitous protagonist Jack Skellington still adorns many a goth-chic market stall. Released to coincide with the Halloween holiday season, Burton’s assured box-office record should see Corpse Bride destined for an equally profitable afterlife.
Set in a 19th Century village (somewhere between English Victorian and East European), Victor Van Dort (Depp), the son of aspirational nouveau-riche fishmongers, is being prepared for an arranged marriage to Victoria (Watson), the porcelain-faced daughter of the Everglots, a ghastly pair of old-money aristocrats who have fallen on hard times.
The wedding rehearsal is a calamitous affair as the hapless Victor stumbles and mumbles his way through the proceedings and almost turns matrimony into matricide when he accidentally sets fire to his future mother-in-law’s dress. Sent out by Pastor Galswells (Lee) to learn his vows, Victor wanders through the forest, and away from the critical glare of his future in-laws, manages to recite his lines perfectly, celebrating this small triumph by placing the ring on the root of a tree. However, this branch turns out to be the bony finger of the eponymous Corpse Bride, Emily (Bonham Carter), who rises from the earth to claim her spouse. Unwittingly hitched, Victor is dragged down into the happy-ever hereafter.
Compared to his dreary existence above at the whim of his avaricious parents, the Land of the Dead is a day-glo dreamland populated by skeletal canines, a literal headwaiter sans body and a hep cat musician called Bonejangles (voiced by composer Danny Elfman). Emily, who met her untimely demise on her own wedding night, is desperate to hold onto Victor, even though she knows he wants to break their unholy matrimony and return to marry Victoria. When Victoria’s parents hastily arrange a replacement spouse in the form of the mysterious Barkis Bittern (Grant), Victor must find a way back to the Land of the Living, even if it means breaking a heart that has long stopped beating.
From bulbous-headed Martians in Mars Attacks! (1996) to the titular sharp-fingered misfit puncturing the monotony of suburbia in Edward Scissorhands (1990), Burton excels in splicing together unique worlds, gleefully subverting religion, tradition and seasonal festivities along the way. As in Beetlejuice (1988), he brings together the worlds of the living and the dead with anarchic results.
Perhaps inspired by his most recent celluloid venture, Burton has crafted an ensemble of wonderfully Dahlian characters, whose faces elongate in grotesque caricature, and these are inhabited by a fine selection of supporting British talent, from thespians Richard E. Grant and Albert Finney to comedians Tracey Ullman, Joanna Lumley and Paul Whitehouse. Burton regulars Michael Gough and Christopher Lee also add a sense of familiarity to the Grimm-painted proceedings.
For so long Burton’s on-screen alter ego, Johnny Depp plays Victor as a distant cousin to Sleepy Hollow’s Ichabod Crane, with foppish raven hair and twig-like limbs, hesitant and apologetic. Like the talented topiarist Edward Scissorhands, Victor compensates for his lack of social skills through artistic expression, and proves himself a rather gifted pianist. The two Elfman-scored piano duets communicate more in a few bars than pages of dialogue would.
The Corpse Bride herself (voiced by real-life Burton beau, Helena Bonham Carter) is invested with a bittersweet sensitivity. With her chalk-blue complexion, a socket-popping eyeball and, like the patchwork Sally in The Nightmare Before Christmas, a tendency to lose limbs at inopportune moments, this amorous cadaver elicits the audience’s sympathy.
While the Gaudi-inspired buildings in the Land of the Living are unified by their washed-out monochromatic hue, the buildings below are decaying versions of what lies above, full of arresting visuals and vibrant colours. As production designer Alex McDowell suggests, “it’s almost like the colour has bled down through the ground.” Stop-motion proves to be a far more tactile medium than the increasingly slick world of computer-generated animation, and the range of subtleties and emotions are a credit to co-director Mike Johnson, who provides the focus here for Burton’s scatterbrain imagination.
This is Burton’s show, however, and he has cultivated his nascent gothicism well into his senior years, revelling in the maudlin and macabre. His cartoon gothic sensibilities are evident here with Peter Lorre-inspired maggots, German Expressionist landscapes and the spiders and bats that continue to populate his visual oeuvre. Ever the populist, the film is more Gorey than gore and Burton ticks all of his coffin-shaped boxes with enough dark humour to satisfy grown-ups and children, while pleasing aesthetes, cineastes and Burton die-hards along the way.
While this may be Burton-by-numbers, behind the layers of trick-or-treat humour lies a simple fairytale that will resonate to all generations, and leave you in high spirits.