Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (2005) Part 2

12. Corpse Bride
Co-directed by Mike Johnson

By 2005, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” had ascended from cult favorite to established classic. Considering how beloved that film is, and how much money it had made over the years, it’s no surprise that Tim Burton wanted to try it again. Burton took a more direct hand in making “Corpse Bride,” his belated return to animation. He directed the vocal performances of the actors while Mike Johnson directed all of the, you know, actual animation. Within the director’s wider career, “Corpse Bride” also represents the point were Burton slips into self-parody and began to coast primarily on his reputation.

Inspired by a Russian fairy tale, the film concerns Victor, the son of a newly wealthy fish magnet. He has been arranged to marry Victoria, the daughter of a family that comes from old money, of which none currently remains. The two do not know each other but quickly develop a bound. The upcoming nuptials are disrupted when, while wandering the forests, Victor accidentally rises an undead bride that immediately takes him as her husband. The Corpse Bride is not exactly grotesque though and soon Victor has to make a choice: Venture into the land of the living with Victoria or stay below with Emily. The decision is harder then it sounds.

“Corpse Bride” is mostly commendable as a visual experience. The entire movie is built on a simple visual contrast. The living world is drab while the world of the dead is colorful. The human characters live in a village that’s totally grey, foreboding clouds always floating overhead. The buildings are wide and flat, matched off with black, loveless streets. In comparison, the underworld is characterized by vibrant green and purple lighting. The architecture itself comes alive by incorporating Burton’s trademark love of Expressionistic cinema. The buildings are crowded together, each one tall and twisting. The alleyways spiral around, twisting into each other. In one scene, we see the town of the underworld in profile and it immediately brings both “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Der Golem” to mind. After Burton went easy on his trademark visuals over the last three films, they make a strong comeback here.

While Burton directed the actor’s performances and lended his style to the film, Mike Johnson directed the actual animation process. This invites inevitable comparison between Johnson and Henry Selick. Johnson is not as good a filmmaker as Selick. Johnson mostly worked previously in television and his visual presentation is not as strong as Selick's. However, his work is far from flat. The movement of the camera is still highly cinematic, most notably in a POV shot of a butterfly flying through town. However, the stop motion animation in the film was heavily assisted by CGI, green screen, and computer assisted lighting correction. “Corpse Bride” is a smooth, flashy looking film. You can’t say Johnson and his team didn’t work hard. The shooting process was actually long and arduous. The team even invited new robotic rigs for the puppets. However, by running so much of the film through a computer, it winds up robbing the stop motion of its grit and weight. Otherwise known as the things that are appealing about the format. “Corpse Bride” looks good but it also might as well have been animated in a computer.

While its impossible not to compare the two films, “Corpse Bride” looks very different from “Nightmare Before Christmas.” And not just because of the different approaches by the directors. The first film maintains the thin characters of Burton’s original illustration. This film goes in a different direction. The puppets of “Corpse Bride” are more traditionally cartoonish and exaggerated. Only the three main characters have attractive designs. Victor’s thin body, wide shoulders, and tear-drop shaped head brings Jack Skellington to mind. Emily the titular character is obviously designed to be the most attractive character in the film. To paraphrase the great Nathan Rabin, if the character designers did their jobs correctly, everyone is going to want to fuck this corpse. Emily is visually appealing though. Her soft blue skin is cute while only making a single leg and arm skeletal prevents her from coming off as too undead and off-putting. As far as sexy zombies go, she’s no Mindy Clarke but is probably hotter then the majority of the undead masses. Honestly though, I think Victoria, Victor’s human bride-to-be, is far more cuter. Her feminine shape is undeniable while her pale skin and round face marks her as a classic Burton-esque strange girl.

While the central trio is designed to be as appealing as possible, the rest of the characters are less so. The majority are rotund and wide bottomed. Victoria’s mother is tall, her features jutting at unpleasant angles, while her father is toad-like in posture and body shape. Victor’s mother is all matronly curves, which impedes her ability to get around. A common joke the movie repeats is designing its characters after their profession. The town crier, for example, is shaped like a bell. Mayhew the carriage driver is stocky and rounded like the haunches of a horse. A butler starts with a giant, pointed nose that informs the rest of his body. A zombie chef named Miss Peach is shaped like – go figure – a peach. It’s not the cleverest idea but it at least gives the film its own look.

“Nightmare Before Christmas” was ultimately a filmed fable, which was occasionally funny but also strived for poignancy. “Corpse Bride,” on the other hand, is mostly a comedy. And not a particularly good one. The film is enamored of broad sight gags and unassuming visual puns. Upon entering the underworld, Victor meets a head waiter who is just a head. An undead dwarf wears a Napoleon get-up and is named “General Bonesapart.” There’s a lot of high concept slapstick which does not translate well to the medium of stop motion. Victor fumbles the wedding rehearsal, dropping the ring, accidentally groping his mother-in-law to be and setting fire to her dress. His initial reaction to Emily brings Lena Hyena to mind. Emily herself has a sidekick, a worm that talks like Peter Lorre and lives in her head. This character, often popping her eyeball out to make a statement, contributes a lot of lame attempts at comedy. A skeleton drinks a beverage, the top of skull flapping open as he burps. Upon being reunited with his live wife, a zombie deafly quotes “Gone with the Wind.” Few of the film’s attempts at laughs are successful.

The reason for this might be the lack of captivating characters. Victor’s personality seems to change with the whims of the plot. He is at first a shy bumbler. Later on, he becomes more assertive, even tricking the Corpse Bride into bringing him back to the surface. Near the end, Victor even challenges the villain to a sword fight, a fairly ridiculous moment. The film tries to save this by having him cower during the fight but it still doesn’t work. Victoria, meanwhile, is mostly a cipher, only showing a glimpse of character when rejecting the villain’s hand in marriage. Emily the Corpse Bride feels bad for herself, is jealous and clingy of Victor, and also foolishly falls for his tricks. She’s a character without a center. Most of the supporting cast are thin caricatures, especially Victoria’s parents who are so mean-spirited and unlikable that you can hardly believe they exist.

The character who gets it the worst is the movie’s villain, Lord Barkis. Barkis, who is obviously evil from the moment he enters the film, shows up just as the story requires him. Greed motivates him to marry rich women, only to murder them. However, it seems like he does it mostly because he likes it. His con is shallow enough that he doesn’t even check to see if Victoria’s family is still well-to-do before marrying her. When his plot is discovered, he launches into full-blown comic book villainy, pulling a sword and threatening Victoria’s life. Which seems counterproductive. When no one is looking, he even gloats villainously. He’s not very good, is the point I’m making.

The lack of interesting characters is frustrating since the love triangle at the story’s center is potentially the most interesting thing about the movie. Victor and Victoria’s marriage is arranged by their parents. Though both are anxious at first, they immediately feel a connection upon meeting. The connection isn’t strong enough that the audience buys him coming back from the underworld for her, but it’s a nice try. At first, Victor is repulsed by Emily. However, as the film goes on, he feels something of a kinship with her too. Instead of most love triangles, where one choice is obviously the more logical one, Victor could easily do just as well with either woman. Had the movie developed its characters more, and focused on romance over clumsy comedy, it would have been a more successful film over all.

But then again, there’s still the issue of the script. “Corpse Bride” is a story dependent upon unlikely coincidences. Victor wanders into the woods and, on a whim, places his ring on Emily’s hand, mistaking it for a gnarled branch. Lord Barkis happens to wander into town after Victor is taken from Victoria. As is revealed at the end, he also happens to be the guy who murdered Emily in the first place. That’s awfully convenient, isn’t it? Midway through the film, Emily learns that she and Victor can’t technically be married, with one of them being dead and the other still living. Victor overhears this and decides to take his own life so the marriage can be official. Barkis and Victoria reach the chapel where this happens just before Victor seals the vows by drinking a cup of poison. A cup of poison that is conveniently left behind for the bad guy to drink, which he does for unexplained reasons. Smooth screenplay construction is one thing. A contrived plot that pushes disbelief is another.

One of the reasons “Nightmare Before Christmas” has endured over the years is because of its fantastically arranged and unforgettable music. “Corpse Bride” is also a musical, with words and lyrics also by Danny Elfman. Elfman’s orchestral score is actually fairly good, recalling the willowy choirs used on “Edward Scissorhands.” However, the songs are forgettable at best and down-right irritating at worst. “According to Plan” is the worst kind of sing-song-y musical writing, characters hoarsely shouting exposition at one another with little room for melody. “Remains of the Day” is probably the catchiest number in the film, heavily featuring Elfman’s vocals while psychedelic skeletons dance on-screen. Even it has a chorus that seems disconnected with the rest of the song. “Tears to Shed” bounces back and forth between Emily’s sadden lament and her sidekicks singing cheery encouragement. The two tones don’t mesh well. And I barely remember “The Wedding Song” which also unceremoniously changes style several times. All the songs suffer from repetitive lyrics and a lack of convincing emotion.

Instead of hiring dependable voice actors, Burton instead brought his typical acting troupe along to voice the characters. Johnny Depp doesn’t have a bad voice for this kind of thing but his foppish delivery borders insufferable. I like Emily Watson but her voice is not strong enough to carry the emotion the story requires. Heelan Bonham Carter doesn’t invest her voice with much strength either. The best performance belongs to actors more familiar with working only with their voices. Christopher Lee brings his steely baritone to a small part as the town’s dictatory pastor. Lee actually generates one of the few laughs in the film, as he attempts to banish the zombies from nonchalantly entering the chapel. Though the part doesn’t require much, Ricahrd E. Grant drips villainy as Lord Garkis, imbuing each line with the maximum amount of evil glee. Tracy Ullman, Albery Finney, Joanna Lumley, and the late Michael Gough all do well enough in parts that demand much of them. At the least, they all know how to bring a character to life with only their voice.

The film might be full of the director’s trademark visuals but the only time “Corpse Bride” brings the ghoulish fun that the director’s best movies have is a brief moment near the end. For the wedding, zombies unearth themselves and invade the town. The townsfolk are horrified at first but soon rediscover their loved ones. The living and the dead finding mutual ground and happily bounding is a highly Burton-esque idea. It’s whimsical but macabre yet still hopeful. Sadly, the rest of “Corpse Bride” is characterized by the director’s latter-day cynicism, lack of ambition, and disinterest in new storylines. It looks nice but is ultimately hollow. [Grade: C]

No comments: