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"Delightfully ghoulish!"
"The film has an inner beauty, an ability to make the grotesque seem more affable and sentimental."
"Tim Burton has created a universe that possesses an ethereal, timeless quality."
Corpse Bride  

Cast

Victor Van Dort: Johnny Depp
Corpse Bride: Helena Bonham Carter
Victoria Everglot: Emily Watson
Nell Van Dort: Tracey Ullman
William Van Dort: Paul Whitehouse
Maudeline Everglot: Joanna Lumley
Finnis Everglot: Albert Finney
Barkis Bittern: Richard E. Grant
Pastor Galswells: Christopher Lee
Review October 2005

"A tragic tale of romance, passion, and a murder most foul?" Perhaps. But don't be too frightened by Bojangles' introduction. This animated fable may seem dark and dreadful, but it's really quite pleasant. And family friendly. From the creator of "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Corpse Bride" offers up a second handful of stop motion with a touch of gothic sensibility and fairy tale cheer. When a young man gets cold feet during his wedding recital, he runs away only to find himself married to a corpse and trapped in the underworld. He then must find his way back home and back to his true love. Directed by the master of the macabre, Tim Burton, "Corpse Bride" is an imaginative, sophisticated tale with unexpected charm. And it features a variety of characters, from rotting corpses to dancing skeletons, all of which have plenty of heart, long after their hearts have stopped. In good spirits, "Corpse Bride" is delightfully ghoulish.

In a small 19th Century village that would make Charles Dicken's proud, a young couple is about to meet for the first time. They are arranged to be married. The groom, Victor, comes from a wealthy family of fishmongers, Nell and William Van Dort. And the bride, Victoria, comes from a poor, but aristocratic family. Neither are enthused about the arrangement, but as far as their parents are concerned, it's a win-win proposition. Oddly enough, when the two end up meeting, they find that they have much in common, in spirit and in heart. And the awkwardness of marriage becomes far less daunting and much more agreeable. But in spite of their newfound attraction, Vincent struggles to find words during the wedding rehearsal. Shy and a bit uptight, Vincent crumbles under the pressure and runs away from the wedding party to find a quiet place where he can be alone. And practice his vows.

Outside the church, he stumbles into a graveyard. There, he places the wedding ring on a tree branch and goes about reciting his vows. And without any pressures from parents or pastors, Vincent nails it. In fact, it's so exact that the branch no longer looks like a branch. Instead, it transforms into the arm and finger of Emily, the Corpse Bride, who rises from the dead to claim her newlywed husband. By netherworld law, the two were officially married. And Emily takes Victor to the Land of the Dead for a ghastly reception. But unsurprisingly, Victor is not in love with Emily. And in spite of all her attempts to please him (including bringing back his dog, Scraps), Emily cannot win him over. Instead, Victor must find a way back to his own world and reclaim the affections of the woman he truly loves.

Like Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Corpse Bride" stands out because of its usage of stop motion animation, a lost art form made famous by Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryheusen. O'Brien is credited with the evolution of the technique as seen in 1925's "The Lost World," but it was truly Harryhausen who mastered the technique and made it a staple in the special effects industry with such classics as "King Kong," "Mysterious Island," and "Jason and the Argonauts." [Note: Look for Burton's tribute to Harryheusen during the first encounter between Victor and Victoria]. From the 1950s through the 1980s, the results were magical. But over time, the technique lost out to the digital era due largely in part to the extensive time and manual work involved in moving figurines and puppets frame by frame. Even though the technology was improving, films still took years to produce.

This, of course, makes a film like "Corpse Bride" a noteworthy cinematic achievement. Yes, Tim Burton applies the same painstaking technique as he did in "The Nightmare Before Christmas." And when you compare it to "Bride's" 110,000 frames and one-year shooting schedule, "Nightmare" easily comes out on top, taking more than 120 animators over two years to film. But what makes "Corpse Bride" unique is that it represents the first feature film to be made with commercial digital still photography instead of old-fashioned film. Call it a blend of the old with the new. And the results are nothing short of amazing. In particular, you'll notice that much of the rigidity prone to stop motion films is gone with the exception of the skeletons gleefully performing "The Skeleton Dance" in unbending fervor. But please note, while the effects are visually much more fluid, the process still required animators to set up 28 shots just to make the Corpse Bride blink!

Meant to be enjoyed by adults and children alike, "Corpse Bride" exists as a fairy tale, one that is very easy to understand and also, very easy to predict. But the film has an inner beauty, an ability to make the grotesque seem more affable and sentimental. In particular, it's lead character Emily. On the surface, Emily is a walking corpse, but because of her spirit, her yearning for true love, she radiates. And she wears her intentions on her sleeve, harboring no ill will other than to find love, a love that was stolen from her many years ago when she was murdered on the eve of her own wedding. There's even a nice scene when the dead walk the earth, a scene that could easily have been about terrorizing the living, but instead becomes a reunion of sorts. It's a scene that reveals a lot about a director, one who is passionate about all things spooky, but so passionate as to breathe love and joy into every frame.

Yet, in spite of its emotional core and technical accomplishments, the film stumbles ever so slightly out of the starting gate. Not because of a major snafu, but rather, one that is almost subliminal in nature. The story opens in the land of the living, an almost monochromatic world, one that is dull and uneventful, much like the story's central characters. Everything is drab and dreary. And it's an intentional, albeit unexpected color scheme that Burton employs, one that paints a gray and gloomy existence for the living and a colorful and energetic lifestyle for the dead. But inadvertently, it disengages audiences at the beginning only to have to work much harder to win them back midway through. After all, the netherworld is much more colorful and much more fun. Confirms Elder Gutknecht: "Why go up there when people are dying to get down here?"

Color confusion aside, "Corpse Bride" is a technically impressive work that follows Tim Burton's fascination for the macabre. But instead of dallying in grotesque visuals and sick humor, the film proceeds whimsically, with an underlying sweetness. Says Emily, "You kept your promise. You set me free. Now I can do the same for you." These are good characters with good intentions that just happened to be thrown into an awkward situation. And they are magically rendered. Combining old school, stop motion with cutting edge digital design, Tim Burton has created a universe that possesses an ethereal, timeless quality. And while you may not wish to kiss this bride, you can still appreciate her beauty. A beauty that radiates from within.



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