Over the last three decades, director Tim Burton has made a career out of telling unconventional stories. These tales relate unusual perspectives using equally unique methods, which set his films apart from the conformity of mainstream fare. Although as of late many have argued that the director has lost his touch, one of his more recent outings proves that the master of modern chills still has a few tricks at his disposal. 2005’s Corpse Bride is equal parts innovation and nostalgia as Burton returns to his previous success in stop-motion animation to tell a tale that is truly to die for.
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The story begins as the newly wealthy van Dort’s arrange for a marriage between their socially inept son, Victor (Johnny Depp), and the daughter of the prominent but now penniless Everglotts. Unfortunately for the young couple, they do not meet until one day before their planned nuptials and Victor manages to ruin the wedding rehearsal through his nervous clumsiness. Despite his mishaps, however, Victor does manage to win the affection of his intelligent and understanding fiancée, Victoria. Eager to start his marriage off on the right foot, Victor spends his night wandering in the woods and repeating the ceremony vows in an attempt to memorize them. Unbeknownst to him, however, he is repeating his vows not on just any patch of woods, but on the shallow grave of a murdered woman. When he places Victoria’s wedding ring on what appears to be a tree root during his mock ceremony he actually places it upon the murdered woman’s finger, awakening her from the dead. The woman, Emily, spirits Victor away to the world of the dead and eagerly tells her fellow spirits about their ‘marriage’. Trapped in the land of the dead, Victor is forced to look inside himself and find the courage to start truly living for the first time in his life.
Although it was marketed as a family film, Corpse Bride is a film that has something for all ages. On the surface, the film contains all of the requisite elements for a quality kids' film; lively musical numbers, engaging animation, and humor. These entertaining elements may draw viewers in, but it is the sophisticated story that keeps them watching for the film’s duration. While the film contains the macabre atmosphere typical of Burton’s films, it is this same atmosphere that serves to relate the dreariness of a life lived at another’s bidding. In the film’s world, the realm of the dead is full of clubs, bars, and people of all walks of life who are no longer bound by the worries and restrictions of life, and the land of the living remains limited to a grey world of conformity. As the plot gets underway, it become evident that this juxtaposition is meant to do more than merely provide an interesting visual, as the dead do more genuine living than their still breathing counterparts. Through his struggle to return to the world of the living, Victor realizes that he is fighting for more than the chance to return to his old life, and that his quest is actually for the chance to start a new life that is truly his own. More enlightening than the usual ‘chase your dreams’ morals of family films, Corpse Bride’s message is one that instructs us to seize the day by living and appreciating our lives to the fullest extent possible.
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Beyond its timeless message of living life to the fullest while you still can, Corpse Bride also tells not one but two love stories. Despite the unusual circumstances that brought them together, Victor is torn between his budding affection for Victoria and his sympathy for and growing attraction to Emily. Unlike other films which make romance a simple and clear affair, Corpse Bride treats both of Victor’s love interests with equal understanding, making his dilemma relatable for viewers. The film also provides Emily with a compelling backstory that makes her a complicated character rather than just the possessive haunt that she at first appears to be. Through Victor’s interactions with both women, the film reveals the ways in which we can learn from our relationships with different people as Victoria's understanding and Emily's vivaciousness provide Victor with the strength to let out the best qualities in himself.
The equally nuanced animation and acting bring the film’s outlandish world to vibrant life. As in his previous success, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Burton utilized stop-motion animation to create characters to tell his three dimensional tale. Unlike Nightmare, which used industry standard replaceable heads and mouths for its puppets, Corpse Bride relied upon a system of clockwork heads whose movements were adjusted by a series of hidden keys. This process, while painstaking, allowed the crew to bring even greater subtlety to the expressions of the characters than in previous stop-motion animation films, allowing viewers to read the characters’ thoughts as they would with a real actor. The voice cast also imbued each of their characters with fully fleshed personalities and genuine emotion that keeps the fantastic plot grounded in real human drama.
Musical, horror story, romance, and coming of age tale, Corpse Bride is a journey that has appeal for the whole family. Through its exquisite visuals and unusual story the film transports its viewers to a whole other world that they won’t soon forget. Through its by turns humorous and poignant approach to life and love the film’s puppets tell a story that is more human than many more conventional films even attempt to convey. For a whole netherworld of fun this Halloween, look no further than Corpse Bride.
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