Sometimes it’s hard to know what to expect from Tim Burton. On the plus side, the guy really knows how to tell a story, and with only a few exceptions, you can tell that each of his movies is truly a labor of love. On the minus side, he’s a little too weird and morbid to fit into the conventional Hollyweird mold. The latest example of that is Corpse Bride.
The first thing I found puzzling about this movie is the fact that it has a PG rating. It has been a long time since I was a kid, but it seems to me that most children would have a hard time “getting” Tim Burton’s directing and storytelling style. I have enjoyed most of his movies, especially Ed Wood, but it’s hard to see how any of his movies (except perhaps The Nightmare Before Christmas) could be considered appropriate for children. Such is the case with Corpse Bride. Overall, it has elements of charm and humor, but some parts of the story are just so morbid, and sometimes even sad, that I’m hesitant to recommend this movie for young children.
The story starts out fairly simple. Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp) is from an ostensibly wealthy family, and he is basically being forced to marry Victoria Everglot (voiced by Emily Watson), who is from another ostensibly wealthy family. As it turns out, both families are nearly destitute, and each assumes that they are marrying into money, when in reality they’re both wrong. At first, neither Victor nor Victoria wants any part of the arranged marriage, even though they’re both going along with it for their families’ sake. Victor, in particular, is a nervous wreck. He does such a terrible job at the wedding rehearsal that everyone gets upset at him, so he runs into the woods to be alone. He has the ring with him, so he starts practicing his marriage vows on sticks and branches. The only problem is, one of the branches turns out to be the dead hand of a corpse named Emily (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter). As soon as Victor puts the ring on her finger and says the marriage vows, Emily comes to life, still wearing her wedding dress, and agrees to be his wife.
The next thing Victor knows, he’s down in the underworld with his new bride, having a wedding reception. Needless to say, he’s a little freaked out by the whole situation, so he quickly escapes the underworld and heads back to Victoria’s house to explain the situation to her. It doesn’t take long for Victor and Victoria to realize that they actually have feelings for each other, but there are complications. (Aren’t there always?) The biggest complication is that Emily is quickly adjusting to married life. She wastes no time finding Victor and dragging him back down to the underworld in a fit of jealous rage. After a while, though, it becomes obvious that Victor isn’t happy in that situation, and she doesn’t take it well at all. As Victor sees how Emily is reacting to his rejection, he takes pity on her and even starts to have feelings for her. Victor is really in a pickle now. He’s married to one woman who is dead, engaged to another woman who is alive, and has feelings for both. As the dad on Everybody Loves Raymond would say, “Now you got two problems!”
Since this is a Tim Burton movie, you can rest assured that the story is not wrapped up in a nice, neat little bow that has everyone living happily ever after. I’m not in the habit of giving away endings or crucial plot points, but I will say that I liked how this movie ended. I thought it was very emotionally touching and appropriate for the story. Now for what I didn’t like… First and foremost, I didn’t like the musical numbers. They were all mediocre, every last one of them. The most enjoyable one was probably the skeleton in the underworld during Emily and Victor’s wedding reception, but even it wasn’t anything spectacular. This movie begged quite a few comparisons to The Nightmare Before Christmas, and even that movie didn’t have very impressive musical numbers, the only exception being “What’s This.” Don’t get me wrong; Burton does a great job of setting moods and telling stories, but he shouldn’t be doing musicals. Likewise, Danny Elfman is a very prolific and talented composer of movie scores and TV theme songs, but his musical numbers leave much to be desired. With the exceptions of “Weird Science” and “Dead Man’s Party,” I didn’t even care much for his Oingo Boingo songs. Yes, I know, that’s easy for me to say since I get to be the Monday-morning quarterback, but he gets paid BIG bucks to write that stuff and I don’t, so I think he ought to write superior music whenever he’s hired to write something. Fair enough? All I’m saying is that I would have enjoyed this movie more if it hadn’t been a musical. (Don’t tell Vic, but I’m actually agreeing with Richard Roeper about the musical numbers in Corpse Bride being mediocre.)
Overall, Corpse Bride is enjoyable, but I wouldn’t recommend that parents take their young children to see it. At best, they won’t get the humor or the storyline. At worst, they’ll be scared by some of the morbid characters and plot points. I’ve already clarified how I feel about the musical numbers, so the only other thing to note is that the quality of the figure animation is excellent. (Notice I didn’t say claymation… aren’t you proud of me?) Bottom line, if you’re a fan of Tim Burton, or you can at least tolerate his style and humor, you should enjoy this movie. He’s not without his faults, but the guy knows how to tell a story.
Corpse Bride is dedicated to the memory of Joe Ranft, who died in a car crash in August 2005. Ranft was a prolific writer and story supervisor; he also did voice work, mostly for Pixar.