Corpse Bride
© Warner Bros. Entertainment
Armen Boudjikanian · September 23, 2005 | The imaginary and reality delightfully collide in Tim Burton's latest film, Corpse Bride. Based on a 19th century Russian folktale, this stop-motion movie is co-directed by Mike Johnson, who also worked on Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. Despite its sombre setting, this film will make its viewers' hearts rejoice with its compelling characters who have to struggle to gain back control of their lives (and in one case, past life). Similar to all Tim Burton movies, the main characters in Corpse Bride have to rely on themselves and the imaginary in order to persevere and fight the powers that be of reality. The film's hero and heroine are Victor and the Corpse Bride, and it is set in a cold, drearily lit Victorian England (at least the reality part). Victor is a shy young man from a nouveau-riche family who is to wed the daughter, appropriately named Victoria, of a crumbling aristocratic family. The arranged marriage goes as planned but the groom-to-be fails to memorize his vows for the rehearsal. Pastor Galswells orders Victor to study his lines for the wedding. The young man does so, alone, in the nearby forest where he accidentally reanimates the corpse of young woman with his wedding ring.

Corpse Bride
Directed by Mike Johnson and Tim Burton
Warner Bros. Entertainment
76 minutes

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This is where the two Burtonesque worlds collide. The Corpse Bride, who died years ago just before her own wedding, believes that her true love has finally come. She takes Victor underground, where the dead live. Oddly enough, the down-below people are much friendlier and more liberated than the living. This underworld setting makes room for macabre fun, and the songs will make you want to sing along with the eerie animated puppets (the songs and the score of the film are composed by Danny Elfman).

One element in the film that I thought could have been developed differently was the main Bad Guy, Barkiss Bittern. As you may have guessed, there is one, and he's the typical Bad Guy, with all the right lines and looks—but without the strong screen presence of classic Tim Burton antagonists. The character and plotlines involving him are somewhat predictable. Although the writing and directing team have transposed the Jewish origins of the tale to a Victorian one (the original folktale's Corpse Bride represents young married Jewish women—bearers of future generations—who were killed by anti-Semites), going deeper into the personality of the corrupt character could have given the film yet another layer.

Corpse Bride is visually stunning. It relies less on expressionist—and more on realistic—décor than previous Burton fantasy films to evoke its stark mood (especially in the interior shots). Its set design and cinematography are so rich that at certain moments you forget that you are watching a puppet film—the scene where Emily attempts to kiss Victor on the bridge for instance. A technical detail that is worth mentioning is that the stop-motion animation was not shot with a motion-picture film camera; instead, professional-grade digital still cameras were used. The result speaks for itself.

Even after the achievements of Nightmare Before Christmas, you will be amazed at how eloquent strange-looking animated puppets can be. There is an important difference though between the two films and that is that while the 1993 film had a constant feel of enchantment, the setting of Corpse Bride will ring truer in the viewers, making us more immediately relate to the characters. The arranged marriage and the snotty parents not wanting to fall into poverty is something that most of us will judge to be unfair and unlikely to happen; but it is nevertheless a very direct human situation—a scenario that has been abandoned by many American animation studios. Burton and Johnson successfully deliver the story with plenty of emotion through puppet animation.
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