Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Corpse Bride / Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride

After the success of The Nightmare Before Christmas and before his remake of Frankenweenie, Tim Burton had another tale to tell as a feature-length stop-motion animation. Corpse Bride was his first attempt at directing a stop-motion feature, Nightmare having been helmed by James and the Giant Peach and later Coraline director Henry Selick - though Peach stalwart Mike Johnson took a co-director’s credit here and presumably showed Burton the ropes ahead of his solo Frankenweenie.

I have to say, it doesn’t seem like seven years since The Corpse Bride came out, though thinking back I remember seeing cosplay of it at a convention in 2006. I missed it when it was in cinemas and always intended to catch it at some point, but the opportunity didn’t come until today.

And I have to say, it rather deserves the plaudits and minor cult status it has earned. It’s no Nightmare Before Christmas, and doesn’t really tug at the heartstrings enough to really stand out even in the stop-motion animation world, but it was an excellent watch because it does everything right. The songs are done right. The animation is done right. The designs, done right. The script and the pacing – right. And yet it still has that odd B-movie quirkiness Tim Burton does best to give it an edge.

A sheltered young woman of noble stock and a rather wet young man from a nouveau riche family of considerable wealth are betrothed, though they have never met. On the eve of their marriage, young Victor and Victoria finally meet and hit it off, Victoria finding Victor’s piano-playing and diffident nature quite charming. However, an overbearing pastor makes him lose his nerve at a rehearsal for the wedding and he goes into the forest to practice. However, putting his ring onto what he thinks is a branch as he speaks his vows is a ‘grave mistake’ – as the poster jokes – for in a shallow grave is a pretty recently-deceased corpse, and the misunderstanding fuels the rest of the drama. The only slightly dodgy point is the baddie, Lord Bittern, who not only is coincidentally (and very obviously) linked to the Corpse Bride, but for a clearly intelligent conman misses the very transparent reason the aristocratic child of very snobby parents is marrying into a wealthy but middle-class trading family.

It’s a small-scale story that intentionally or not has a nice contrast between the limited cast of the living world – essentially the betrothed, their amusing grotesque parents, their staff, a love rival, the pastor and a town crier – and the exuberant and populous purgatory, where most scenes are crowd scenes and every little creature seems to talk except for the ghost dog right out of Funnybones. The characters in the living world are hilarious caricatures while those in the land of the dead are very quickly-defined bit parts where just about anything is possible. It makes for a grimly comic mood that keeps the pace brisk.

The vocal performances here are excellent – while Tim Burton’s usual stars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter provide mostly functional performances that nonetheless are immediately sympathetic, as does Emily Watson, a cast of British comic and horror talents are clearly having an excellent time here. Christopher Lee’s gruff pastor has all the expected gravitas, and Albert Finny tries hard to out-gruff him. Harry Enfield and Fast Show fixture Paul Whitehouse (who Depp has expressed great admiration for) plays multiple roles, and Jane Horrocks crops up as a spider. The late Michael Gough, another Hammer actor and the Alfred in Burton’s Batman films, has a charming wise man role, and Richard E. Grant is his usual wonderful snarling posh bad guy. But stealing the show every time she speaks is Joanna Lumley, with a rich voice like no other. 

Then there’s Danny Elfman singing, and sounding like he’s having more fun than anyone else.  

I have to say, I was also probably more impressed by the stop-motion animation here than in any other Burton film. It wasn’t the spectacle – it was the small details. If that fabric rippling in the wind was done frame-by-frame, it was done by consummate masters of their craft. It looks fantastic. Spiders’ legs can’t be easy to do in this sort of medium, but they look great. And that pleasant creepy-but-still-soft aesthetic that persists in Frankenweenie looks rather nice here.

In some ways I feel like this is the purest form of Tim Burton’s style – everything is his vision, and hung on a good, classic, B-movie premise without the need to make it in some way metatextual or ironic. And it’s entertaining to boot. Great stuff.

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