Corpse Bride (2005)

First it was Wallace and Gromit, and now – Corpse Bride? Wow, two claymation films in one year, better yet, released within a month? This is very nice indeed – the big studios are looking at the animation a little closer, despite Disney’s troubles and closures. I wonder if those two just happened to be finished at the same time, or it was a strategically planned release, to position new animation studios as the future entertainment sources (as opposed to lousy Disney flicks)? After all, only Dreamworks (Shrek series, Madagascar) and Pixar (anything from them is a gem, really) can release cartoons that actually make money. But enough of cynicism – it was a film from Tim Burton, it was not a typical hand-drawn or tired computer-animated product, it was unusual. And as far as I’m concerned, unusual is good. It’s memorable.

Corpse Bride follows James and The Giant Peach and Nightmare Before Christmas – in style and many themes. It’s very dark, painstakingly shot frame by frame, does feature songs (unlike W&G), and it’s aimed at kids, despite its subject matter. W&G had plenty of grown-up references and humour in it – which is why the theater was roaring with laughter – adult laughter, and that can be a bad thing for a cartoon. If kids don’t get a grown-up joke, they won’t tell everyone in their class to come see it next weekend. Whereas adults are too busy promoting serious films to their friends, rather than “that odd toon I saw with my kids yesterday”. Which is a shame, really – because Corpse Bride is very, very entertaining. It’s just not going to get the word-of-mouth it deserves.

I walked into the theater expecting a dark, sinister story about the world of undead, interfering with our world and that’s exactly what I got – except that it was not sinister. Hard to imagine, but the characters are endearing, even sweet – they do come from “other world”, but they have a normal life, they hang out with skeleton friends, sing at the bar, celebrate holidays, have chores. It a very sweet element that keeps coming up as the main character keeps visiting “the other side” when he accidentally proposes to a corpse. The plot is quite simple – a bumbling, shy young Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp) is about to marry Victoria Everglott (voiced by Emily Watson). It’s an arranged marriage, where money and status (or the appearance of it) play a major role. The parents on both sides are wonderfully over-acted by Tracey Ullman, Paul Whitehouse (Victor’s side) and Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney (on Victoria’s side), and the pressure is comical and yet understandable.

While practicing his marriage vows in a spooky forest (where else), Victor inadvertently proposes to a stick in the ground, which turns out to be the remains of a young deceased woman. She rises, agrees, and drags poor Victor to the underworld. Everything else is a standard mistaken identity, mixed with meet-cute, a few songs, comic-relief characters and many many laughs. Strangely, the underworld is more colourful than Victor’s, without being scary. What will he do? Accept a life with an eager, genuinely happy corpse bride, or try to make things work in an arranged marriage to a living person? The film never gets too philosophical, it’s just a journey through an unusual place.

And for a journey, it’s very memorable – the hilarious dances, the clever songs, the eerie background music (courtesy of Danny Elfman – who else). Tim Burton put a lot of heart into these characters – their movements, facial expressions are so well done, it’s hard to imagine that everything was shot frame by frame. While it’s not quite as much fun as Nightmare Before Christmas – it does deal with issues of loss and death – it’s still a nice spin on the old “fish outta water” formula. Plus, of course the voice acting – the cast is amazing, with Richard E Grant, Deep Roy and Christopher Lee adding their talents.

You know, Burton seems to like the same actors, and keeps putting them in his projects again and again. Sometimes this technique gets tiring – but in this case, the usual suspects (Depp, Bonham-Carter, Elfman, Roy, Grant) disappear into the characters so well, you forget that it’s a well-known actor’s voice, and you get absorbed by the story, and the emotions of the animated characters.

Animation is a great medium, and while Disney is working hard on milking its library of films for countless sequels and direct-to-video releases, it’s nice to see that an unusual project like that can get green-lit, and can get a decent promotion and release. Sure, the big names (Burton, Depp) have a lot to do with the success, but when a big-shot director can produce something out of the ordinary, instead of bowing to the predictable, inoffensive, watered down, mass-market product – that’s a bonus. Corpse Bride might be too scary for the wee ones, and too simple for grownups. It’s claymation style is not for animation lovers, but the journey is definitely worth the price and time. A pet project that we can all appreciate. Give us more, Mr Burton.

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