Anywhere But Here
The title character of Tim Burton's latest movie has a radiant smile, part of which is visible through the gaping hole in her left cheek. Her figure is lush, except where eaten away. Her eyes are large and expressive, though the right one often falls out, providing egress for a worm who lives in her skull. Although her nature is musical, her pianism is slightly marred by the tapping of bones against the keys.
She is (to use the full name) Tim Burton's Corpse Bride; and as you can tell from even a brief description, it is not entirely a joke for a living man to be bound to her.
Her appearance so soon after Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is welcome evidence of a return to form for Burton, whose greatest gift may be a talent for jesting seriously. When he's off his form, the humor may turn into sentimental whimsy (as in Big Fish), or the seriousness become lumpishly grotesque (witness Sleepy Hollow). But in this summer's Charlie, aided by his longtime collaborator Johnny Depp, Burton has toyed giddily with the line between reward and punishment. (Every river of chocolate has its undertow for the unwary; every child's downfall is celebrated in psychedelic song.) In Corpse Bride, the terms have shifted somewhat--we're now dealing with the line between desire and revulsion--but Burton continues to play jump-rope with the border, and Depp still does much of the skipping.
The story, though told through stop-motion animation, may be better suited to adults than children, not only because of those flesh-eating worms but because so much of it has to do with cash-poor aristocrats and wealthy, parvenu merchants--a dauntingly nineteenth-century theme for most kids, especially when the exposition is given through Danny Elfman's patter songs. So if you intend to frighten your favorite little ones with Corpse Bride, be prepared to explain that skinny, poetic Victor (voice of Depp) is being married off to sad, lonely Victoria (voice of Emily Watson) so that his family may be elevated from its status as fishmongers and hers may pay the upkeep on the ancestral mansion. Yet even though the marriage is forced and the surroundings gloomy--the whole town is a sooty gray--romance blossoms. Victor and Victoria fall in love at first sight; but when, at the wedding rehearsal, the inept groom repeatedly flubs his vows, he makes the terrible mistake of wandering off alone to practice. Deep in the forest, under cover of darkness, he at last says the formula correctly--and so marries the unfortunate virgin (voice of Helena Bonham Carter) who has been lying underfoot for many years, buried in a rotting wedding dress.
Her ecstasy; his horror. And your bliss, since Corpse Bride now takes Victor to the Land of the Dead--a colorful and convivial place, where no one feels pain, almost everyone grins (being skeletal) and physical form exists to be violated. Bodies interpenetrate, split apart, get jumbled, reassemble. Each part is as good as a whole; and in the shared space of the grave, each neighbor's parts are as good as yours. At first, Victor doesn't appreciate this melting away of personal boundaries--but for the audience, it's an ever-increasing delight, as the screen turns into a happy, teeming mass of corporeal impossibilities.
Burton co-directed Corpse Bride with Mike Johnson. The screenplay is credited to John August, Caroline Thompson and Pamela Pettler. Alex McDowell was production designer, and the cinematographer was Pete Kozachik. Lifting my head gently off the neck, I tip my skull to them all.