Clay animation has always held a special place in the hearts of Tim Burton and his fanbase. In 1982, when Burton made Vincent, his directorial debut, the medium of stop-motion animation had been virtually dormant for years, employed only in the form of visual effects or children’s fare. Burton’s vision, however, was wonderfully dark and unique. Filmed in black and white, his six minute film about a young boy who idolizes Vincent Price (who provided the film’s narration) showed enormous promise and opened up a new world of potential for clay animation which The Nightmare Before Christmas later explored with great style and success. Burton’s latest clay-animated work, Corpse Bride, follows in the tradition of Nightmare, but the greatest similarity shared by the two is their uniqueness. Corpse Bride is a work of art all on its own.
The story is set in 19th century Europe. Victor (Johnny Depp), a shy and introverted young man, finds himself betrothed to Victoria, a young aristocratic woman (Emily Watson). The marriage has been arranged by their parents who are thinking only of financial gain, but Victor becomes even more shy and intimidated after meeting Victoria and finding that he actually loves her. In an effort to overcome his nervousness, Victor rehearses his marital vows in the moonlit forest, only to find that he is standing on a grave site and has inadvertently proposed to a dead woman. Emily, the “corpse bride” (Helena Bonham Carter), whisks Victor away to the land of the dead, leaving him wondering what will come of his newfound marriage and whether or not he will ever return to fair Victoria’s side.
Whereas The Nightmare Before Christmas was fairly straightforward, Corpse Bride will hit various age groups at different levels. The 19th century setting of a society bound by unspoken formality feels a lot like Jane Austen, but the elements of class struggle are certain to soar above children’s heads. The film’s first act shows a glorious world existing mostly in shades of gray. Burton has built his career around this visual style (Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow), but Corpse Bride’s social satire reinforces the visuals in a way never seen before. It seems perfectly fitting for the drab concept of a passionless marriage to be joylessly painted. Once the title character steals Victor away, however, vivid colors burst into view, for only in the land of the dead do bright colors exist. This aspect of the film reminded me of why people fell in love with Tim Burton’s work in the first place. It’s an apparently backwards idea that dark and macabre subject matter could provide color and meaning for a film, but Burton places this paradox at the heart of his work.
Fans of Tim Burton will recognize his various visual trademarks and will also be delighted at how the art of clay animation has furthered and developed. You can definitely tell that stop-motion is being used (which in today’s world of Computer graphics is quite charming), but the characters have much more facial expression than they did in The Nightmare Before Christmas. These expressions make it much easier to connect with the characters early on, as well as compliment the vocal performances of the actors. Both the realm of the dead and the world of the living are glorious to behold; nothing about the setting seems real, and this helps offset the inherent absurdity of the story. The animation is beautifully executed and will keep viewers of all ages adequately intrigued. While some scenes might be frightening for small children, nothing gets out of hand in regards to how death is portrayed. Every time I feared that the story was straying too far for kids, it always managed to stay within the confines of family entertainment.
Like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride is a musical, although this aspect of the film could have been stronger. Only a handful of short numbers punctuate the film’s duration, and none of them are very memorable. Danny Elfman’s compositions are always fitting and often brilliant, but Corpse Bride seems noncommittal, having one foot in the musical realm and the other foot out. Everyone who saw Nightmare spent the next few weeks humming its memorable tunes, but Corpse Bride’s musical numbers, while appropriate, aren’t necessary.
Still, this film marks another successful venture for Tim Burton. It’s certainly not for everyone (you probably know by now whether or not it’s for you), but his fans have always appreciated his willingness to produce original art, much of which has little mainstream appeal. If you’re wondering why I can’t stop referencing The Nightmare Before Christmas, it’s because that film was a landmark achievement for Burton. On paper, it was a movie made for no one; besides being the first full-length stop-motion animated film, it was a musical which was too dark for most children and too goofy for most adults. Burton made it, though, and his films continue to find their well-deserved following. I’m pleased to announce that Corpse Bride is no different, presenting us with something that is fun and fresh, yet for fans of Tim Burton, strangely familiar.