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Monday 26 September 2005

Corpse Bride

Review by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Tim Burton and Mike Johnson

Written by John August, Pamela Pettler, Caroline Thompson

Starring the voice talent of Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Tracey Ullman, Paul Whitehouse, Joanna Lumley, Albert Finney, Richard E. Grant, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Deep Roy

Both: Here's a film that accomplishes everything it sets out to do. It's short, it's funny, and save a couple of plot contrivances, it hits the mark across the board. If you liked The Nightmare Before Christmas, you'll love this. On the whole it's a better film.

Lawrence Person: I would have loved to sit in on the pitch session for this movie. "It's 'A Rose for Emily,' the animated musical comedy!" It's not often you see family entertainment whose main subtext is necrophilia. If I had to guess, I'd say Tim Burton got this green-lighted only after agreeing to do the remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (which would explain why they have so much of the same cast, besides Burton and Bonham Carter being (as they say here) betrothed).

The title and trailer pretty much give away the basic plot: Victor (Johnny Depp) is about to have an arranged marriage (his family is rich and common; hers poor and royal) to Victoria (Emily Watson), but he's such a naïf he can't remember his wedding vows. While practicing them in the moon-lit forest, he accidentally puts the ring on what turns out to be the bony finger of the title character (Helena Bonham Carter) sticking out of the ground rather than a branch, whereupon she springs up, accepts, and drags her new hubby down to the world of the dead to meet all her bony friends. Complications ensue.

The plot is pretty simple; the animation is not.

Howard Waldrop: Wowee! The more you know about stop-motion animation, the more wonderful this film is. At the same time, someone knowing absolutely nothing about the form (and who probably thinks this was done with computers or something) will marvel at it anyway, and be taken in by the story.

In the cool morning-after of logic, parts of the narrative come undone (see below). None of it matters while you're watching it. There's so much thatís wonderful going on all the time, all over the screen. Technically, this is the best stop-motion movie ever made. Characters go one way and the camera another, which means the camera had to be moved a frame at a time, too, just like the models, only the opposite way. (It was done for the first time in the elevated railway sequence of King Kong (1933) where the camera viewpoint is in front of the train.) Characters are in focus in the foreground; other recognizable characters are out of focus in the background, and they walk into focus. (Think about it.) My jaw dropped (just like the skeleton's) a couple of times.

Wind effects: This is in a quasi-Edwardian setting (hallucinated Gorey is more like it). There are lots of cloaks, coats, veils and long flowing hair. Blowing in the wind. Every goddamned thing that moves in this movie is because the camera stopped and somebody's hand came in and moved the model, the model's clothes and hair, some fraction of an inch. The hand left; the camera took another frame of film. Wind effects are notoriously crappy things to do right. The wind effects here start, travel across a cloak, etc., and end — just like real wind. They move across a set from a certain direction; the trees closest to that direction move first, then the middle ones, then the background, just like a gust of wind traveled across what is, in effect, a hermetically sealed animation table inside a sound stage that hasn't felt real wind in 50 years...

LP: The look and feel shows enormous continuity not only with The Nightmare Before Christmas, but with the entirety of Burton's oeuvre. The pointed-chin look of the faces matches up perfectly with Burton's early foray into stop-motion animation, the short film Vincent. All the Gorey-influenced dark whimsy is there, and there's even a reanimated dead dog (at least the third appearance of such, stretching all the way back to his non-animated short, Frankenweenie. (Dead puppies aren't much fun, but Burton makes reanimated ones a barrel of laughs.) While it will probably have less perennial holiday appeal than The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride has two major strengths in comparison. First, the love story (or in this case, love triangle) is integral to the story, whereas the one in The Nightmare Before Christmas seemed tacked on. Second: There's less music here, but the overall quality is higher.

Both: The Nightmare Before Christmas had a couple of swell songs, and then six or seven middling ones, whereas Corpse Brideís soundtrack has only four songs total. Elfman's music works twice: one is the skeleton number, "The Remains of the Day," an all-out Sporting Life/Cab Calloway Dixieland scat-singing boogie jam accompanied by probably the best, hyperkinetic, over-the top animated sequence in film history. (We're talking "deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as "What's Opera Doc?", "Stimpy's Invention" and Futurama's "Robot Hell.") It's simply astounding, pure, unadulterated magic, even better than the opening "This is Halloween" from The Nightmare Before Christmas, with the added bonus that it handles all the exposition for the title character. It's a show-stopper for a show that refuses to stop and goes on to new wonders. If every musical number worked this well, Hollywood be releasing musicals every week. (Interestingly enough, the song that works least ("The Heroine's Melancholy Lament That The Love Interest Doesn't Appreciate Her") is the exact counterpart of the one that doesn't really work in The Nightmare Before Christmas either.)

HW: About ten minutes in I realized I was watching what they used to call in the 1930s "comedy with music" — not quite a musical. It's not a format that gets a lot of workout these days — and wouldn't you know it, it's a stop-motion film that gets it right.

Christopher Lee and Michael Gough (their voices anyway) are together again for the first time in about 45 years, both with great character parts. Their voices just get more resonant and sepulchral the older they get. Burton and Johnson know exactly how to use them, too. The rest of the voice-acting is just right — from the one-liners to the leads. They always seem to be coming out of the characters, from Depp's uncertain groom to the Split-man in the hell-bar scenes. The character design is also staggering. Helena Bonham Carter's Corpse Bride has the best gams and rack ever on a dead-woman (sometimes — it varies).

There are some deeply disturbing undertones beyond the aforementioned necrophilia. The dead-world/hell scenes are brightly lit and cheery; it's the upper-world Edwardian stuff that seems (in retrospect) dead and washed-out blue-grey. Victoria has a maggot Jiminy-Cricket-like conscience that talks like Peter Lorre, and who lives in her brain. Death in this film seems a state of mind, not a state of matter.

Both: There are homages to everything here, stop-motion or not. From the Harryhausen pianoforte, to the driver named Mayhew (who, like his namesake, ends up taking a trip to the underworld), to the Posada-like Day of the Dead skeletons on bicycles, it's all here. Let art wash over you.

LP: The few things that don't work (besides the fact that, given the evidence here, despite her many other talents, Bonham Carter can't sing) are all "Let's Make The Ending Happy" plot points they haven't laid the groundwork for. At one point we're told heavy duty magic is required to return the dead to the land of the living, but later on the dead all just tromp up there without so much as a by-your-leave. And the title character's final transformation is not foreshadowed in a way consistent with what few ground-rules we've been given. The rest is so good we're willing to cut them some slack, but there's no reason we should have to.

HW: This is bloody brilliant, as the Brits used to say. It's got it all — story, characters you care about, homage, technical mastery of the kind Willis O'Brien, George Pal and Ray Harryhausen made the world safe for — their heir turned out to be Burton (from out of left field, to a theater near you). He's always been great with actors. This time out , they're made with plastic and silicone, and they out-act everybody on the screen so far this year, including their real-live selves.

LP: Now the question is how long Corpse Bride will keep that title. Just two weeks hence, Nick Park, another heir to O'Brien and Harryhausen's stop-motion legacy, will give us Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. If you're a stop-motion fan, life reeks with joy.

Both: Do go see it.

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