With a name like The Corpse Bride, was there ever any doubt that Tim Burton would direct it and Danny Elfman do the music? Both of these filmmakers, one using images and one using music, have the gift of engaging the magical, the frightening, and the bizarre, and pulling the humanity out of it.
Even when most of the people involved aren’t exactly human.
The Corpse Bride is a strange and kind of scary story, the kind where adults slide sideways glances at their kids to see if they are handling it well, while the kids are loving every minute of it. It reminds me of one of the old school Grimm Brothers fairy tales, the kind where the prince was just as likely to get eaten by the dragon as rescue the princess.
And not only are the fantastical elements not necessarily benign, neither are the human elements. The central characters in this story—Victor, Victoria, and the Corpse Bride—are gentle souls in a world of scheming, manipulating, social climbing, and unkindness …and that’s just their parents. There are worse evils lurking, ones that mean them worse harm.
Johnny Depp, a truly versatile actor, plays Victor, a quiet and mild-mannered young man whose parents are in trade, and therefore very wealthy. They have arranged for him to marry Victoria, played by Emily Watson, the daughter of a family with a title, but no money. His parents are thrilled by the match, hers are not, but the two young people do as they are told, even if we get glimpses into their anxiety about the whole thing.
In an unplanned moment alone, Victor and Victoria, who have never met, get to know each other better, and develop a charming sort of shy fondness for each other. You definitely get the feeling that they could be happy together if they could just get away from their overbearing parents. However, Victor is nervous at the rehearsal and keeps flubbing his vows, so the evening ends in disarray, and Victor goes off alone into the woods to practice his vows.
Inspired by the thought of his bride-to-be, Victor finally gets the vows right, and in a moment of make-believe, he recites them perfectly and sincerely. He slips the ring onto a twig sticking up from the ground, pretending it is Victoria. But it’s not actually a twig, it’s the skeletal finger of a corpse, who then rises eerily from her shallow grave and intones, “I do.”
And there begins a very unlikely love triangle. The Corpse Bride, played by Helena Bonham-Carter, assumes that Victor has married her, and Victor knows he didn’t intend to do that. But the Bride’s personality is considerably more effervescent and assertive than Victor’s, and he finds himself swept along by her ideas into her world.
The Bride’s world, the world of the dead, is vivid Technicolor compared to the washed out gray world of the living. The music is better, too—jazzy and lively. The dead are funny and friendly, unlike almost anyone in the living world. The Bride herself is so committed to Victor and their so-called marriage that he finds himself softening toward her, and even relaxing enough to enjoy the fun of the underworld.
But obviously, that’s a relationship that can’t last, because he’s alive and she’s dead. The rest of the film is about Victor trying to untangle the relationships he has with two women who seem to love him, and to find the strength to make his own choices. Along the way there’s betrayal, fights, attempted murder, and suicide. Finally, both Victor and Victoria find the strength to stand up for what they want for a change, and the movie comes full circle, with the viewer thinking that these two will be all right, if everyone will just leave them alone.
In good Tim Burton fashion, this movie is weird, funny, visually stunning, and a little bit creepy in places. It really is a good time for kids, and families will enjoy watching it together.