Friday, September 09, 2005

TIFF 2005: "CORPSE BRIDE" (Review)

(Special Presentations) United Kingdom, 76 minutes
Written by: John August & Pamela Pettler & Caroline Thompson
Directed by: Tim Burton & Mike Johnson
Voices: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Richard E. Grant, Albert Finney

Tim Burton's first foray into feature-length stop motion animation, 1993's "A Nightmare Before Christmas", was only a middling hit at the time but in the decade-plus has become something of a cult phenomena and holiday perennial (there seem to be new merchandise spin-offs debuting weekly at the local comics shop). Arguably, it was released just too darn early, just as animation was starting to become accepted as more than kidstuff thanks to the resurrection of Disney's 2D animation division ("The Little Mermaid", "Aladdin", "Beauty And The Beast") and with "South Park" and "Adult Swim" yet to be even napkin scribbles .

It'll be interesting to see if "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" fares better first time out of the pine box, now that "Nightmare" is already enchanting a second generation of fans. A lot of redevelopment has occurred in Toontown since 1993--particularly the pioneering of an entirely new animation medium, that would be "CG" of course ("Jurassic Park" was also a 1993 release), and the seemingly permanent reign of a certain titan known as Pixar, the little Lucasfilm spin-off which has all but rinsed off those flat cels and gliding backgrounds for good. Where does that leave the technique of stop-motion animation (aka "Claymation", "Puppetoons"), which is now trapped somewhere between 2D's quaint analog artifice and 3D's spacial (and facial) possibilites?

A good story and charming characters, it can be argued, render the choice of medium moot. Here, Burton's taken an obscure Russian folktale, relocated it to Victorian England, and given it his unmistakeable, Ed Gorey-meets-Art Clokey visual stamp in which the ghouls rule and "fright" always makes "right".

Yet another forty-year old virgin, artist-pianist Victor Van Dort (Depp) has consented to an arranged marriage by his middle-class parents to the equally shy Victoria (Watson), the daughter of posturing snobs The Everglots, who are expecting a major cash payout in the form of a dowry . The nervous Victor bumbles their wedding rehearsal and is shamed into leaving until he learns his vows.

In the woods, Victor puts the ring on a branch for practice and unwillingly resurrects a dead woman--conveniently already clad in a wedding dress--who accepts his proposal. Although Victoria is sweet and sincere, Corpse Bride (Carter) is something of a persuasive hotty and Victor wastes no time in following her down into the Land Of The Dead. Down below is a helluva lot more fun than the ash-hued mausoleum that is the Land Of The Living, where Victoria's parents waste no time trying to pawn off their daughter to opportunistic dandy Baron Barkis (Grant). Victor instantly grooves to the skeletal jazz band, his adorable undead dog (a childhood pet), and even the chatty maggot who pops out from the bride’s right eye like a slimy Jiminy Crickett. But ever-so-proper, can he somehow escape this twisted contract and win back his original betrothed? To paraphrase a certain ad campaign: How can you divorce what is already dead?

With its small cast, intimate environments and complete lack of timely pop culture references (save one), "Corpse Bride" may bore those expecting the Robin-Williams-On-Red-Bull riffing of "The Incredibles" or the "Shrek" series. It's "cute" rather than knee-slappingly funny, heavy on the puns--and not much scarier than "Beetlejuice"s waiting room scenes. Danny Elfman's songs acknowledge Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Stephen Sondheim and function as "sung dialogue"--and likely won't be reworked as ringtones any time soon. The stop-motion puppets (designed from Burton's sketches by Carlos Grangel) have faces that are less expressive than their CGI cousins, and thus rely more on pantomime and stylized anatomy for emotion.

"Corpse Bride" could've used a few more songs and "big" moments ("Nightmare" had 10 numbers) but there's a lot to admire here given that this is exactly the movie Burton wanted to make, current pop culture landscape be damned. He could've produced this cheaper and faster in CG and loaded it with stunt voice casting, but didn't. Now some kids today will find this about as hip as Rankin Bass' "Mad Monster Party", but the fact that Victor's piano is emblazoned with a "Harryhausen Ltd." manufacturers plate reveals Burton's desired audience. Let's hope they don't opt to lie at home like a bunch of stiffs come opening weekend...

Robert J. Lewis