Although he didn’t write it and likely didn’t direct it either in a practical sense (leaving the stop-motion minutiae to co director Mike Johnson), Tim Burton’s name is all over Corpse Bride. And rightly so. Like most Burton films, it feels underwritten. And like most Burton films it compensates with visuals full of kinks and character – he was and still is a cartoonist by temperament.
Burton’s universe is unmistakeable. Even my six year old spotted that the waif Victoria, Victor Van Dort’s intended, bears an uncanny resemblance to Sally in The Nightmare Before Christmas. As for Victor – he’s a rather timid dreamer along the lines of Jonathan Harker in Dracula or the hesitantly intrepid heroes you find in the Roger Corman Edgar Allen Poe movies… in other words he bears some resemblance to Depp’s Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow.
Mr. Depp provides the character’s voice (their fifth collaboration). Helena Bonham Carter is the titular bride to whom Victor accidentally pledges his troth – her fourth film with Burton. Michael Gough, Albert Finney, Christopher Lee, Deep Roy, and of course composer Danny Elfman (who has written all Burton’s scores); the supporting cast constitutes a Tim Burton stock company by now.
So is he just repeating himself?
Corpse Bride is a series of variations on familiar themes. The nouveau riche parents who push Victor to marry Victoria must be ancestors of those status-conscious suburbanites who crop up in Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice. Victoria’s parents are even worse: gentry so snobbish they believe music is unbecoming in a young lady. They’re such rotten examples of humanity, they might have been dreamed up by Roald Dahl. As for the movie’s raison d’etre, the journey into the underworld…haven’t we been there, done that in a little movie called Beetlejuice?
(Even the surprising-at-first decision to show the ‘real world’ in monochrome and the land of the dead in glorious Technicolor has its forebear, in Powell and Pressburger’s marvelous A Matter of Life and Death).
Corpse Bride may not mark a radical departure for Tim Burton, but it’s his most romantic movie for a long time – and the first in a while which suggests he might actually like people (preferably in a state of decomposure). At any rate we don’t read and reread fairytales for surprise twists or shocking revelations. We read them because they express something of the familiar strangeness of a world in which people marry for money, not love, and the dead aren’t ghouls and ghosties, but friends and loved ones.