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Tim Burton's
Corpse Bride

To some guys, marriage equals death. It's been that way for centuries, as evinced by the folktale that inspired Tim Burton's Corpse Bride. In that story, the young hero simply divorces his spectral spouse before moving on with his life. Burton, a man who himself has never married, cannot make it so simple. We might find the prospect of marriage to a dead woman rather unnerving, but the director above the title apparently finds it alluring.

Why else cast his significant muse other, Helena Bonham Carter, as the titular character and make sure we know she's his corpse bride?

Still, Burton makes a pretty good case for the allure of the underworld. Moreover, just as he did in The Nightmare Before Christmas, the creator puts forth the essential harmlessness of the darker side. In Burton's world, the things that go bump in the night just want to have fun. Oh, heck, just go ahead and call this Night of the Loving Dead.

Unlike Burton's earlier stop-motion masterpiece, this film has a small intimate feel. Ultimately it has three major set pieces, and after a meandering opening musical number, it keeps its focus relatively straightforward. Danny Elfman plays the skeletal Mr. Bonejangles, but only one of his songs actually adds anything, unfortunately, taking care of the exposition explaining how the bride became a corpse.

That's not to say that music plays no part. The screenwriters have made the piano an important motif (and a nod to Ray Harryhausen) throughout, as Victor's (Johnny Depp) way of connecting with the women in his life, both living and dead. In fact, the scenes involving piano playing are downright charming - and beautifully composed by Elfman.

Yes, Burton and co-director Mike Johnson have made a macabre movie that you can still call charming ...right up until the character that splits in half to display gory plasticine innards.

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride earns its PG-13 with little touches of gore that could probably have been left out, but then it might not have been so gleefully gloomy. Victor, stuck in an arranged marriage to Victoria (Emily Watson), panics and runs at the rehearsal dinner. Though he slowly discovers he might actually love her, it comes too late as he accidentally proposes to the Corpse Bride.

Somehow Victor gets transported to the Land of the Dead, which is apparently a literal underworld. If you had any doubts about which realm Burton prefers, note that the living inhabit a world of grey hues, while the dead get to be as colorful as ...well, a Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. Burton and Johnson do use more greens and blues than warmer colors, but the point still gets made.

There all the characters with any real character carouse about, including Elder Gutknecht (Michael Gough), who serves as the Keeper of Knowledge for the dead. Even being lively, they molder, and Gutknecht is a cracked skeleton with a still impressive goatee. Later on the film implies that these dead have a reason to stay near the living, but only gets brought up for one truly beautiful and touching scene.

Since Nightmare, Burton and Johnson have only refined the process of their animation. While the characters still carry the stamp of Burton's art, an evolution has begun taking place. The figure of Victor moves and acts as recognizably Depp, though quite an exaggerated version. With the advent of computers, the animation team can also make everything smoother and less like a Rankin-Bass special.

On a bittersweet note, the villain of the piece Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant) bears a strong resemblance to a certain incredible Pixar character. The late Pixar gagman and genius Joe Ranft has credit as executive producer, and his touches run throughout the film. Ranft was killed a few weeks ago in a car accident, and though no doubt Cars will still have his influence, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride would make for a decent farewell.

As he's gotten older and accepted his place as one of us, Burton has allowed more and more sentiment to sneak into his films. He's still Burton, of course, which keeps things from getting treacly, but it's nice to see a filmmaker of such bombast as this summer's still excellent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (yes, Goodson, I may still review it) spend time on a nice little story like this.

Who would have thought the dead could be so sweet?


Derek McCaw

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