film review ***1/2
A New Way to Animate the Dead
By Bogdan Fedeles
Directed by Tim Burton, Mike Johnson
Written by John August, Pamela Petler
Starring the voices of Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Christopher Lee
True to the hype, the highly anticipated “Corpse Bride” is a wonderful mix of technical innovation, wit, and artistry, likely to please the most varied audiences. Tim Burton’s latest feature is a dark-hued romantic fantasy, which combines an unconventional story with subtle satire and unusual cinematographic techniques to deliver a truly delectable treat. Factor in the vocal talents of a remarkable cast and Danny Elfman’s sparkling music, and there you have a masterpiece you won’t regret watching over and over again. Well, at least twice.
“Corpse Bride” is yet another movie stemming from Tim Burton’s fascination with ghosts, the realms of the dead, and their connection with ordinary people’s lives. Movies like “Beetlejuice,” “The Nightmare before Christmas,” and “Sleepy Hollow” come to mind. Nevertheless, the main inspiration for “Corpse Bride” comes from an old Russian folktale, a story reminiscent of anti-Semitic practices from centuries ago when Jewish brides were killed and buried in their bridal gowns.
The folktale goes like this: two Jewish friends (one of them about to get married) travel through a forest. At some point, perhaps to get more practice, but mostly as a joke, the groom-to-be performs the marriage ritual next to an unknown grave that happens to be in their way. Amazingly, as soon as the ritual is done, a ghostly corpse bride rises from the grave informing the young man that they are married. The spooky situation cannot be solved on the spot, so it is brought in front of the Rabbi, who eventually concludes that the living and the dead cannot be bound by marriage. Nevertheless, the young man and his future wife are deeply touched by the tragic story of the corpse bride and decide to uphold her memory by giving her a proper burial and promising to tell her story from generation to generation.
Tim Burton’s take on this old tale is obviously more romantic and less serious, including significant plot twists. His intention was not to keep the message of the story, but rather to use it as a pretext to recreate the fantastic world where such a story would happen. And as with most of Burton’s movies, this particular recreation bears his signature meticulousness and unmistakable directorial lead.
The visuals are one of the most striking aspects of “Corpse Bride.” This is an animated movie, but the way the animation is created is completely novel. The entire feature was shot with digital still-photography cameras instead of film cameras, then animated using stop motion. This technique gives the images an eerie effect that perfectly matches the story’s dark overtones.
Moreover, the characters are actually silicone-covered steel puppets, molded after the actors who are voicing them. So it is no wonder that Victor Van Dort (the protagonist of the story) looks a lot like Johnny Depp, or that the Corpse Bride bears a striking resemblance to Helena Bonham Carter (who happens to be Burton’s real-life bride). This approach to animation has numerous benefits, allowing seamless incorporation of actors’ facial features and movements into the movie.
The performance of the cast is at least as good as the technical effects. The voice acting of the entire cast is remarkable and adds liveliness and emotional depth to the characters.
Some people may find “Corpse Bride” coming in a little short for its promises at only 76 minutes. However, the movie’s essence is merely amplified by its calculated conciseness. That’s why every single minute is deliciously packed with witty dialogue full of double entendres and striking visuals that hide more inside jokes and satire — hence the need to watch this movie at least twice.
Last but not least, the music and the songs of “Corpse Bride” are immensely entertaining and wonderfully matched to the story. Danny Elfman again delivers a brilliant score plus an entertaining voice performance as Bonejangles, the lead of the skeleton band. While some dancing sequences tend to hint at old Disney productions, it is the music that keeps the story on track — darker and more unsettling than old-fashioned cartoons, yet still malleable to the romanticism of the story.
Elder Gutknecht, one of the characters from the realm of the dead, says with good humor: “Why go up there when people are dying to get down here?” Well, if you care to know why people are dying to get there, you’ll have to go and watch the movie. You won’t regret it.