Toon Talk - From the Other Side: Tim Burton's Corpse Bride
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(c) Warner Bros
From Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (his directorial debut) to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory earlier this year, Burton has displayed a playful gift for expressionistic visuals, alas, often at the expense of solid storytelling. Corpse Bride certainly delivers on the former as well as, disappointingly, the latter. Burton, along with co-director Mike Johnson, are tripped up by the convoluted plot; while trying to untwist this bizarre love triangle, the viewer is left muddled as to who exactly we are supposed to root for here: should Victor spend the rest of his life with Victoria, or end it now and spend eternity with his corpse bride? As the central character, Victor is so wishy-washy and underdeveloped that it is easy to resist his plight, leaving the heart of the film as dead as half the cast.
As most know, Burton started his filmmaking career as an animator at Disney, thanklessly toiling away on such projects as The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron in the early-to-mid-80's; around that time he also directed the short films Vincent and Frankenweenie (both of which are echoed in Bride), which eventually lead to his work in features. After his Batman success, Burton returned to Disney, who, eager to hook-up with the then hot new director, agreed to produce a dream project of his, the gothic musical fable The Nightmare Before Christmas. With its striking mix of the macabre and the merry, the Studio didn't know quite what to do with the film, eventually releasing it under the Touchstone banner in 1993, with Burton's name tacked onto the title to maximize public awareness of the Bat-director's involvement (based on his original story, Burton produced the film, which was actually directed by Henry Selick, who would go on to direct another stop-motion film for Disney, James and the Giant Peach). Of course, NBX has gone on to become a unique success story in all the Disney canon, a true cult favorite that continues to gain popularity over a decade after its release (it even invades Disneyland's Haunted Mansion each year for the extended Halloween-through-Christmas holiday season).
With its similar themes, styles and techniques, it is impossible to not compare Corpse Bride to its predecessor (even if it owes an equal amount to yet another of Burton's earlier hits, Beetlejuice). Both films share a common obsession with the darker side of childhood tales (a tradition that hails as far back as the writings of the Grimm brothers), and one would be hard-pressed not to see a similarity in the two film's leading ladies; with her tattered attire and skinless limbs, the Corpse Bride is surely related to NBX's patchwork heroine Sally (I half expected her to show up as a bridesmaid). The supporting cast of undead aren't nearly as meticulously designed (especially in comparison with their Halloweentown kin); most are merely skeletons right out of a Julie Taymor dream sequence. Most uninspired is a Peter Lorre-sounding maggot ostensibly present as comic relief, who pops out of the Bride whenever she looses a body part, the film's interminable running gag and seemingly sole attempt at humor; that this joke was exhausted with the Rasputin character in Anastasia makes it appear even more desperate.
Further emphasizing the link between NBX and Bride is the involvement of another of Burton's frequent collaborators, composer Danny Elfman, who turns in a rather non-distinct score and a handful of new tunes shockingly prosaic. Elfman's sublime score for NBX was practically operatic in scope, but his Bride songs are discordant and tiresome, reminiscent of the worst attempts by second-string songwriters in direct-to-video animations.