By Alex Skrapits (Wantagh, NY)
It is not always easy to replicate as something as revolutionary as one’s previous works. And NO, I am NOT talking about remakes. That’s a no-brainer. I am talking about Tim Burton and his sleeper hit, The Nightmare Before Christmas. Distributed by Disney (secretly at first) and directed by Henry Selick, this holiday classic amazed audiences for its imaginative visuals, powerful message, unforgettable characters and songs. While Tim earned recognition from other projects, this movie shows that Tim is capable of visual crafting stories through stop-motion. The question is, how can continue stop-motion projects?
During wrap-up production on Nightmare, the late Pixar animator Joe Ranft introduced Tim a 19th century Russian folktale about a human accidentally proposing to a corpse bride. Tim then began fascinated with the idea and began working on the movie after he was done with Big Fish. With Henry Selick unavailable and recovering from his unmentionable mistake, this gave Tim the opportunity to take the director’s chair (co-directing to be more precise), gathering his collaborative actors and crew, and concurrently working on both this movie and Charlie and the Charlie Factory. With Joe Ranft’s untimely passing, you can immediately sense that production on this film is almost like Steven Spielberg working on A.I. after Stanley Kubrick’s unexpected death. So, does this movie hold the same the magic as Nightmare? Yes…mostly.
When a timid groom (voiced by Johnny Depp) practices his wedding vows, he inadvertently proposes to a dead, young woman (voiced by Helen Bonham Carter) who then takes him to the underworld.
Despite the story being based on a folktale, its impact feels like a refreshing concept in a similar vein of what The Nightmare Before Christmas provided. The movie does provide some fascinating questions about the philosophy and world around its characters. What happens if a human weds a corpse? What is the afterlife like? Is there a way for either the living or dead to travel between both realms? In fact, my favorite question is: What happens when you come across your deceased, loved one or relative walking among the land of the living? The movie answers that question so heartwarmingly that I wish something like this would happen in reality. I don’t care if my deceased grandparents look decayed, I would be happy to see them again. Sure, we are familiar with stories like these, but the execution of the writing presents a surreal yet magical wonder that Burton is famous for.
With that said, there is a major difference that makes the story suffer in comparison to Nightmare. As you would remember, The Nightmare Before Christmas was displayed as a fairy tale where its simplicity and characters were told effectively and emotionally. While the movie carries that aspect, certain people would be turned off believing that the movie may copy a little too much of what the previous movie did…if they watch it with a straight face. Plus, the story could lead to predictable moments, especially with a couple selective characters’ motives. There is also a mixed bag of humor throughout the movie. In one scene, you’ll be laughing at a clever visual gag. Then again, you’ll roll your eyes at an obvious pun or quote you’ve heard before. Putting those problems aside, this fable still delivers us what Tim Burton does best and I think that’s fair enough written-wise.
Since this is his first time working on a stop-motion project without Selick, Tim Burton still impresses us with plenty of creative and well-crafted stop-motion animation on his own. The first element worth mentioning is how the rendering has evolved since Nightmare. Back in the day, the stop-motion was filmed using traditional 35mm cameras. However, as the new age of digital photography came about, the movie was shot under digital SLR cameras, resulting in the framerate and the character animation to be higher and smoother.
Now, let’s take the time to explore the world of Corpse Bride. We start off in a Victorian England village, where the colors look bleak and every resident has a distinctive design from one and other. You will see a town crier who is shaped like a bell or a short, toad-like man with a permanent frown on his face. You might even get lost in a dark, gloomy forest where you would even get scared to death. The next thing you know it, you somehow end up in the Land of the Dead where everything is suddenly full of neon colors and come across some interesting looking deceased characters. You would find a moving severed head as your waiter, a maggot who looks like Peter Lorre, a skeleton that resembles Napoleon with a sword stuck to his chest, the list goes on! It is ironically the Land of the Dead feels more alive and a fascinating place to visit. From what I described, the visuals and animation gave us exactly what you expect from a Tim Burton movie, along with a fantastic artistic contrast. And of course, like Nightmare, the animators found inventive techniques for the characters to move under their beneficial designs and weight. With the addition of how technology has advanced, the movie also provided CGI when they used scenes with groups of birds or butterflies. I guess the only criticism I would say about the animation is that it feels almost into familiar territory on how everything was handled like in Nightmare. Like the story, I don’t think that is the point. What matters is Tim Burton still does what he does best in stop-motion.
This movie provides an “interesting” cast of characters for a variety of reasons. While it contains some memorable characters, there are other characters that are basic…but not on the same level as Nightmare. Let’s begin on the living side with our main protagonist Victor Van Dort. He is a shy son of a family of fish merchants who is arranged in marrying Victoria Everglot, a kind and caring daughter of an aristocratic family whom Victor soon falls for. William and Nell Van Dort are Victor’s preoccupied and disapproving parents while Finis and Maudeline Everglot are Victoria’s greedy and uncaring parents, with Finis standing out for visual gags and a solid performance done by the late Albert Finney. We also have our main antagonist Lord Barkis, who plans to marry Victoria for reasons I cannot give away but you could easily guess. The rest of the human residents also leave a good impression like the town crier who projects his voice louder when brought indoors, Mayhew the Van Dort family’s smoking coachman and the short-tempered priest Pastor Galswells, voiced by the legendary Christopher Lee. While the human characters I mentioned are not bad or intolerable and their actors gave outstanding voice-work, they feel too simple and don’t hold the candle for audiences to be interested in.
On the other hand, if you want to talk about the folks of the Land of the Dead, THAT is where you’ll find remarkable characters. Starting with the titular character herself Emily, she is a compelling, young woman who was murdered years ago and has been waiting for her fiancée ever since. Once Victor stepped in, the two slowly and surprisingly build a believable chemistry. Emily soon goes through a development where she learns to never take away someone else’s happiness since hers was already stolen. She is also accompanied by Maggot, a sarcastic green maggot, like I mentioned looks and sounds like Peter Lorre, who acts as Emily’s conscience ala Jiminy Cricket. Like the citizens of Halloween Town, the residents of the Land of the Dead also stand out in remembrance in design yet provide that signature Tim Burton charm: Scraps is Victor’s deceased childhood pet dog, Mrs. Plum is the head zombie chef, Black Widow is the self-explanatory spider that is a dressmaker, General Bonesapart is the Napoleon knockoff, Bonejangles is the lounge singing skeleton performed by Danny Elfman himself, and Elder Gutknecht is the wise and compassionate ruler. You could easily tell and compare which character to remember or wish to forget.
Speaking of Danny Elfman, NO Tim Burton project cannot be complete without his contribution to the musical score and songs. While they aren’t that much musical numbers and the songs themselves are not as catchy as “This is Halloween” or “What’s This?”, they are still executed well enough to serve a musical’s purpose: describing who these characters are or how they feel. The opening song “According to Plan” definitely establishes who the Van Dort and Everglot families are and what their motives under Victorian era atmospheric music. Easily the best song in the movie is “Remains of the Day” where Bonejangles colorfully sings about Emily’s backstory and the world they inhabit through 2D silhouettes and well-choreographed back-up skeleton dancers. “Tears to Shed” is a motivational duet performed by Maggot and Black Widow to boost Emily’s confidence on her relationship with Victor. And lastly, “The Wedding Song” is an upbeat song where the Land of the Dead residents plan and set the wedding between Victor and Emily in the human world. For the musical scores, while Victor may not be complex, the scenes involving him playing the piano does display Elfman’s capabilities. The best visually appealing scene with piano music is the duet between Victor and Emily. Music is music; you’ll at least be satisfied nonetheless.
In conclusion, Corpse Bride is a genuine Tim Burton experience with an interesting concept, resourceful visuals, well-done stop motion animation, noteworthy characters and nicely executed songs. Sure, the unsophisticated human characters and overly-accustomed tropes that resemble The Nightmare Before Christmas would not appeal to everyone. Then again, you can tell Tim Burton did the best what he could offer by himself. It is worth watching if you are a huge Tim Burton or animation fan, especially during the Halloween season. If you resist the magic of Tim Burton, you are DEAD wrong. In fact, Joe Ranft would agree upon that statement.