For 'Corpse Bride,' Tim Burton gets accessible
By Jeff Latta
At its core, someone with scissors for hands isn't exactly funny. An adult male who dresses up like a bat to fight crime isn't quite cute. And don't even get me started on Pee-Wee and his big adventure. But for his latest film, the stop-motion feature Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, co-director, producer and co-writer Tim Burton has brought his work to a place that everyone can appreciate.
Victor (Johnny Depp) is a shy boy who finds himself betrothed to a girl he has never met, curiously and coincidentally named Victoria (Emily Watson). This presents him with no shortage of nervousness. But after meeting his bride-to-be and falling instantly in love, a different sort of nerve pops up as Victor struggles to remember his vows and make himself out to be a suitable suitor. A rehearsal in the woods leaves him with one hell of an undead wife on his hands, the ravishing but pulseless Emily (Helena Bonham Carter). Finding himself pulled into the underworld for an afterlife of unholy matrimony, Victor must find a way to free himself of his new bride before his old one moves on with her life.
For this enticing animated feature, Burton and company use slender, big-eyed puppets made from stainless-steel skeletons and covered with a strange silicon rubber skin. They come equipped with a bevy of tiny gears and joints, with cranks in their ears to create and control intricate, lifelike facial expressions. This makes for much more complex figures than the straightforward clay dolls of Burton's last foray into the medium, 1993's Nightmare Before Christmas. In that film, dozens of heads with different facial expressions were made for each character to create the varying visages of Jack Skellington and friends.
Advanced technology has updated the look of the new film as well, with Canon digital still cameras being used to create a smoother and more convincing fluidity to the motion. Now the characters move around more like living, breathing toys rather than cumbersome balls of clay.
But despite the technological improvements over its predecessor, Corpse Bride still bears similarities to Nightmare. The songs, again composed by Danny Elfman, give the musical element a familiar and swinging beat. Likewise, the same brisk pacing and constantly moving structure of Burton's last cartoon feature is employed, no doubt to make every painstaking second of shot footage count. (A week's worth of shooting yields, at best, two minutes of footage.)
Characteristics from all of Tim Burton's past films can be observed in this 78-minute masterwork. Victor himself is a man-child, like Pee-Wee or Willy Wonka. Both he and Emily are of the quiet, sensitive variety that shares a likeness with Edward Scissorhands. The pompous and preening sets of parents recall the decadent dwellers of Sleepy Hollow.
There is much to love about Corpse Bride. All the vocal performances are a delight; Depp, Carter and Watson carry the film with ease. Their voices are instantly recognizable, but we never care. The countless tiny jokes, the precise attention to little details of the set, the soft lighting shone at just the right moments show this film for what it is: a lovingly crafted work straight from the heart. The only weak spot is that the scenes that take place in the underworld are so exciting, so alive with motion and personality that the rest of the film (which takes place in the "real world") falls a tad flat. Audiences, especially the younger ones, could very well find themselves waiting in semibored anticipation for the next high-octane musical number featuring an army of dancing skeletons and jaunty rotting corpses.
That dancing skeletons and rotting corpses can exist in a movie that will satisfy audiences both young and old is a testament to the achievement of the picture. Here, the macabre becomes cute, the gruesome becomes cuddly. As with this summer's similarly wonderful Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Burton has found just the right medium and message for his particular brand of quirkiness.
'Tim Burton's Corpse Bride' opens everywhere Friday, Sept. 23.
From the September 21-27, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.