It took twelve years, but Tim Burton's newest stop-motion animated film has just been released. "Corpse Bride" shares many things with its predecessor, but it lacks two key ingredients to help the film become a classic.
Victor's (Johnny Depp) parents, the Van Dorts (Tracey Ullman and Paul Whitehouse) are newly rich fishmongers, living in Victorian England, a dark and gray place, both in aesthetic and mood. In an effort to establish themselves in society, they have arranged for Victor to marry Victoria (Emily Watson), the daughter of the Everglots (Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney), society people who are now broke. Therefore, the marriage will benefit both families. Victor and Victoria meet for the first time shortly before the wedding rehearsal with Pastor Galswells (Christopher Lee). Galswells quickly loses his patience with Victor, who, very nervous, can't remember his lines. The pastor sends Victor away to practice. Walking around, practicing, Victor unwittingly says his vows correctly and marries the Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter). Soon, Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant) arrives and makes a play for Victoria as Victor struggles to make everything right.
The stop motion animation used in "Bride" has clearly developed significantly in the last twelve years. The movements and facial expressions are more fluid and lifelike adding to the look of the film. Reportedly, they were able to build armatures into the puppets to change their facial expressions. In "Nightmare", they had to change the heads to reflect a new expression. All of these advances help to make the figures move as though they were hand- or computer-animated.
The production design is rich in detail. The characters are one of the most interesting aspects of the film. Victor and Victoria are both very skinny with pasty white skin from underexposure to the sun. Their clothes are tight and formfitting, all adding to an authentic, if stylized, take on the period. Victor's mother is a robust, big framed woman and Victoria's father is short and round, both examples of people with more money and food than activity.
Set in Victorian England, the production design seems heavily influenced by Charles Addams' cartoons. The interior of the Everglot Mansion has been painted in shades of gray and black, but this is an effect of few and small windows throughout the house, another good period detail. What light is able to penetrate is gray as a London fog.
All of the voice actors are very good, providing the right amount of serious intonation for the characters. This brings us to one of the problems with the film. "Bride" is much more serious than its predecessor. The story is much closer to one of the Grimm's Fairy Tales, with no Tim Burton-esque moments added. The story is very dark and fable-like, which is interesting and works, but it isn't funny. It seems odd that they would take what is basically a dramatic story and animate it. Perhaps they are trying to challenge the parameters of animation with this film. If this is the case, why did they add a few moments of attempted humor? If you are going to tell a drama, tell a drama. If you want people to laugh, make it funny. Do one or the other the best you can. Don't try to do both half heartedly.
Shortly after Victor proposes to the Corpse Bride, she takes him "downstairs" to her world, where all of the ghosts and skeletons live and play. This sequence features a song by Mr. Bonejangles (Danny Elfman) explaining what happened to the Corpse Bride. It is an amusing sequence but it is entirely out of place in this film. In addition to the previously mentioned thematic inconsistencies, the sequence doesn't match the rest of the film in style. The sequence is filled with Mexican Day of the Dead characters and illustrations, an interesting design, very cute, very charming. But how does that fit with the Victorian England design of the rest of the film?
There are a few songs throughout and they work, to a certain degree. In all of the songs, there becomes a point when the characters start to break into choruses and the choruses are difficult to hear and understand. This may be attributed to the crappy theater I saw the film in, but I am not completely sure of that. Because we can't understand what they are saying, the songs fail to help move the story along, as necessary, and end up slowing the film down.
Note to Warner Bros: If you release a film in "Limited Release", don't use the Cineplex Broadway Cinemas in Santa Monica as one of two venues in Los Angeles for your film. This theater is crap and doesn't do your films justice.
What "Corpse Bride" needed was Henry Selick. Selick was too busy working on "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" and doing pre-production on his new film (hopefully, not "Monkeybone 2") to become involved. Because he directed "Nightmare" and didn't direct this film, it is fairly clear that his involvement would have improved the film dramatically.
"Corpse Bride" has a terrific production design, very good voice acting and a dramatic story. Too bad they felt it necessary to try to make it funny and a musical.