Saturday, November 18, 2006

Random Movie Report #15: Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

I missed CORPSE BRIDE in its theatrical run, the film coming out around the same time as SERENITY and A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, both of which had priority. I'm starting to regret that, because this film has a remarkable quality all its own. A deceptively simple gothic fairy tale, the stop-motion romantic comedy blends love and death in some interesting ways and becomes surprisingly poignant.

Johnny Depp (now starring in two RMRs in a row) provides the voice for Victor, a timid young man belonging to a noveau riche family, who is on the brink of being married to Victoria (voice of Emily Watson), a charming young lady he meets the day of their rehearsal. They quickly fall in love, but Victor's still nervous and fumbles his way through the vows. After a disastrous rehearsal he flees into the woods and practices, slipping the ring on what looks like a branch. It turns out to be the bony finger of Emily the Corpse Bride (voice of Helena Bonham Carter), a once- okay, still somewhat beautiful woman murdered by her fiance while waiting to elope with him and waiting since then for someone to join her side. Taking Victor as her husband, she drags him down to the underworld, a macabre but pleasant place where folk in various states of decay drink, dance, and sing. Victor is desperate to get back topside and rejoin his true love, but in the meantime Emily is a charming woman and his old dog Scraps is still around as well. Meanwhile, up above, Victoria's aristocratic parents (who are broke and arranged the marriage to Victor to avoid the poorhouse) decide her intended is unstable, particularly after hearing he's been seen with a mysterious dark-haired woman outside of town. Good for them, the suave and glamorous Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant) seems interested. Emily finds out about Victoria, Victoria finds out about Emily, wackiness ensues.

I'm a bit reluctant to call the film by its proper title of TIM BURTON'S CORPSE BRIDE, because it's hard to tell exactly how much of it is his. He had no hand in the screenplay, but co-created the characters with Carlos Grangel, and co-directed with Mike Johnson. It definitely has the feel of a Burton film, and some plot elements seem familiar from BEETLEJUICE and THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. It benefits from a tighter plot than most of his movies, though, and writers John August, Caroline Thompson, and Pamela Pettler deserve kudos for constructing a fairly tight narrative (the film barely tops 70 minutes.) But then, writing credits are notoriously dodgy thanks to the WGA's arbitration rules (one of the things that prevents the importance of the screenwriter from being fully recognized), and I won't draw any conclusions about who did what. It's probably for the best.

What really makes the film work is the gentleness with which it treats its central romantic triangle. Emily and Victoria both view each other as "the other woman," but neither of them is really bad, and neither woman's feelings can be overlooked, as Victor comes to find out. His heart belongs with Victoria (if only because he met her first, and she has a pulse), but Emily's tragic situation wins some sympathy from him and us as well. That both actresses are charming helps.

Depp plays a character completely without cool, which he has done before but not recently, so it's nice to know he can still hit the low notes. Watson and Carter, as pointed out, are also good, and the voice cast includes Tracey Ullman, Albert Finney, Joanna Lumley, Christopher Lee (as a priest), Jane Horrocks, and Michael Gough. You know, one of these days I'm going to have to review a film where the acting REALLY sucks just to balance all the praise I keep doling out.

Though not quite a proper musical, the film has a few songs by Danny Elfman. The animation is excellent, with a vaguely Edward Gorey-esque look; the overworld is presented almost entirely in drab sepia tones, while the underworld is colorful and lively. It makes for an interesting contrast, and gets at one of the interesting themes of the movie. For what is on some level a kids' film, the movie is blunt about the inevitability of death, while presenting it as not such a bad thing. It happens in its time, and while we should live life to its fullest, we shouldn't live in fear of our own mortality. It's an interesting lesson, presented without an excess of sentiment. There's also a nice psychological angle, with Emily effectively being trapped in her illusion of what was supposed to happen, and a constant refrain in dialogue and song is that things rarely go according to plan. But, as we see, they have a way of working out, if we can move past expectations.

I do not want to give away the final moments of the film, but they are beautiful and poignant in a way I honestly did not expect, and elevate the entire affair. Though not as spectacular as NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, this film is just about as moving and every bit as well crafted. I'm glad I stumbled on it, and I dare say it may deserve more attention from a lot of corners.

Grade: A-

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