Tim Burton's influences run far and wide, but his new animated feature, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, brushes aside any degrees of separation that may exist between this eccentric filmmaker who traffics in darkness and that wholesome American icon Mickey Mouse.
Granted, Walt's rodent is now nothing more than a shrewd capitalist enticing families to Disneyland as convincingly as if he were luring Pinocchio and Lampwick to the devilish Pleasure Island. But back in the decade, Mickey starred in numerous cartoons that were just as bizarre as the outlandish Warner Bros. toons we still revisit today. One such example is 1929's Haunted House, in which hip skeletons dance with the fervor of Grease-era John Travolta. Watching an identical scene unfold in Burton's latest triumph, it's hard to believe he didn't swipe an idea or two from that 76-year-old chestnut.
And why not? Burton has always displayed an appreciation for cinematic lore, from respectfully casting film legends Christopher Lee and the late Vincent Price in small roles to making pictures that draw up memories of German expressionism (Batman Returns) and Hammer Studios horror (Sleepy Hollow). With Corpse Bride, he returns to the stomping ground of his previous foray into stop-motion animation, 1993's Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. Compared to Christmas, which featured better songs, more interesting characters and a darker sensibility, Corpse Bride can't help but qualify as a mild disappointment. Yet compared to the insipid drivel that passes for animated entertainment these days (the bird droppings from the recent Valiant have yet to be wiped up), this is an unqualified success. And the unlikely source that elicits most of its goodwill isn't its horror but rather its heart.
Based on a Russian folk tale but transferred to Victorian England, Corpse Bride finds Johnny Depp, working with Burton for the fifth time, providing the voice of Victor Van Dort, a shy lad who's set to marry a shy lass named Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson). While practicing his wedding vows in the village's adjoining forest, he places the ring on a spindly branch, only to watch in horror as the branch reveals itself to be the finger of a corpse that rises from the ground like a zombie extra in a George Romero feature. This corpse bride turns out to be Emily (Helena Bonham Carter), a lovely (if decaying) young woman who died on her wedding night and who's been waiting ever since for her true love to come along. Against his will, Victor is dragged by his newfound spouse below the earth into the Land of the Dead, which resembles nothing so much as a jazz joint populated by beer-swilling skeletons, men with hacked up bodies and a buck-toothed maggot who sounds like Peter Lorre. Yet even as Victor plots his great escape from this apparent purgatory, he finds himself becoming increasingly sympathetic to Emily's plight.
Corpse Bride is a marvel of craft and imagination -- I especially liked the manner in which one skeleton's single eyeball kept rolling back and forth between sockets, depending on which way he tilted his head -- and while the movie is light on boisterous laughs, its visual wit never ceases to delight. Yet what's most surprising about the film is its ability to make us care about the fate of Bonham Carter's character, a sensitive woman who suffered a cruel betrayal she didn't deserve (we learn the circumstances behind her death, and its grisliness is right in line with a Victorian era that produced the factual Jack the Ripper and the fictional Mr. Hyde). Back in 1970, the tagline for Love Story -- "Love means never having to say you're sorry" -- was so omniscient that one year later, the Vincent Price chiller The Abominable Dr. Phibes (about a deformed madman) spoofed it by declaring in its ad copy, "Love means never having to say you're ugly." Along those same lines, I can't imagine a better tagline for Corpse Bride than "Love means never having to say you're decaying," a sentiment that aptly captures the movie's blend of rot and romance.