Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Bangers n' Mash 45: Sleepaway Camp

 Here's a long promised episode, just shy-of-an-hour on probably my all-time favorite eighties slasher series, "Sleepaway Camp!" I've mentioned these movies plenty of times before but I don't think I've ever done an in-depth write-up of the series. I guess that's not necessary anymore, since, special guest host, Rob and I discuss these movies in great detail. Even the sequels that were considered but never made! Wow, as the mostly quiet JD says, we're huge fucking nerds.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (2012) Part 2

16. Frankenweenie

When I first saw and reviewed “Frankenweenie” in 2012, I was surprised by how much I like it. After re-watching all of Burton’s previous films, that surprise makes even more sense. The film was released following “Alice in Wonderland” and “Dark Shadows,” two back-to-back career lows for the director. Against competition like that, even a merely above-average film looks great. Watching the film two years later, I suppose I was predisposed to like it. The film is an extended homage to classic horror about a boy and his dog. I love classic horror. I love dogs. I might have been the very specific niche audience “Frankenweenie” was designed to appeal to.

The film is a remake of a short film Burton directed at the beginning of his career. The short was live action while the feature length version is animated in the stop-motion style that Burton saw some success with in the past. The story is about the ironically named Victor Frankenstein, a lonely little boy living in the painfully square town of New Holland. Victor’s only friend is his dog, Sparky, and the two make silly monster movies in their backyard. Tragedy strikes when Sparky is hit by a car, robbing Victor of his only friend. The boy is so heartbroken, that he digs up his dog’s body and, living up to his name sake, brings Sparky back to life using lightning and mad science. Victor has Sparky back but hijinks ensues, especially when the other neighborhood kids discover his secret.

On “Corpse Bride,” Burton officially co-directed with animator Mike Johnson. With “Frankenweenie,” Tim takes all the credit, receiving the sole directorial notice.  However, a closer look will show that Trey Thomas was the “animation director,” which suggests that he actually directed the bulk of the movie, with Burton simply directing the voice actors. So let’s examine Thomas’ work. Perhaps inspired by Henry Selick’s “Coraline,” “Frankenweenie” has less in common with the slick CGI-assisted animation of “Corpse Bride” and resembles the Earthier animation of “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” The focus isn’t on shiny, fancy shots and more on the characters and their world. The character designs, featuring the thin limbs, wide eyes, and dark hair, are right out of Burton’s sketch book. The film is, in general, more grounded then the director’s last foray into animation.

Helping give “Frankenweenie” a distinctive look is its beautiful black and white photography. Despite the colors on display, the film doesn’t indulge in as much old time atmosphere as you’d expect. There’s a little, such as fog billowing through an underground tomb. However, the choice mostly roots the movie to the past, displaying its simplistic roots. Shots of characters walking through a rain storm are done to establish a gloomy mood, instead of a frightening one. Thomas’ direction features a few visual flares, like a round hole in a wooden fence transitioning to a round clock. For the most part though, “Frankenweenie” is a grounded film, nostalgic for the simplicity of childhood.

Part of that nostalgia presents itself in the numerous references to the Universal Monsters and ‘50s creature features. Victor’s budding girlfriend has the first name of Elsa, like Elsa Lanchester. To further this reference, her pet poodle sports a white-streaked beehive hair-do. The town being named “New Holland” mostly seems to be done so the finale can be set in a burning windmill. Two of the supporting characters explicitly reference the classic “Frankenstein” series. The creepy Edgar is the story’s Igor, from his hump down to his spooky way of talking. One of Victor’s classmates, Nassor, is modeled after Bors Karloff, featuring his broad shoulders, wide forehead, flattop haircut, and his lisp. Just in case anyone missed the joke, Nassor winds up wrapped like a mummy by story’s end.

As obvious as the film’s love for classic horror of the 30s is, many of its most oddball references are to different eras. The eccentric science teacher that encourages Victor’s experiments is patterned after Vincent Price, in appearance if not voice. Rodan puts in a cameo early on. A giant turtle that heavily resembles Gamera lumbers through the last act, stomping on a police car like the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The flock of mad Sea Monkeys act a lot like Gremlins. There are cute visual references to everything from “The Birds” to “Pet Sematary. “ Moments like these make it clear that “Frankenweenie” is as much for monster kids as it is for regular kids.

The movie is primarily about something else though. The love between a boy and his dog drives the story. Victor and Sparky are inseparable and the two cling to each other. Being a 87-minute long kid’s film, “Frankenweenie” can only spend so much time on the two’s living relationship. Sparky has to be dead before the twenty minute mark. This could have been a movie about a young boy learning to cope with death. Instead, it’s about how all-abiding love transcends everything. In the movie, Victor loves his dog enough to bring him back from the dead. In real life, we keep our loved ones alive through our memories.

The film wouldn’t be worth much if it couldn’t sell the emotional connection between the kid and his pet. Luckily, Sparky is adorable and charming. During the day, he gets into silly shenanigans, like slipping out a window, swallowing a fly, or chasing after the neighborhood cat. The film does a great job of recreating the way a dog moves and acts. Not as much time is spent on it as I would have liked but you still understand how much Victor loves Sparky. The bound between the two powers the whole film.

The primary theme of love seems a bit at odds with its other theme. Mr. Rzykruski is driven out of town by the ignorant parents for inspiring his students to ask too many questions. Victor is a budding scientist. Mr. Rzykruski recognizes this and has a heart-to-heart with the boy before leaving town. He tells him that a true scientist powers his experiment with love. If a scientist doesn’t love his experiment, the procedure will fail. I think the film was going for something but it kind of pulls this one out of its ass. I think most scientists would agree that emotional investment is actually more likely to ruin an experiment. This attitude is an intentional reversal of classic horror film’s general anti-science subtext. Yet it doesn’t jive well with the film’s true theme of love for lost family members.

Despite being animated, “Frankenweenie” feels more like a Tim Burton movie then his last two live action efforts. The movie is obviously awash with the director’s visual sense. There are no expressionistic sets and only a few black and white spirals. However, the character designs are obviously inspired by the director’s style. A look beneath the surface shows the script is full of Burton trademarks too. Victor is an outcast with few friends, whose obsession makes him too weird for the mainstream. Sparky becomes an outsider too, after rising from the dead, frightening the ignorant neighbors. It’s easy to imagine Elsa, the strange girl next door, as the tween version of “Beetlejuice’s” Lydia. Both are estranged from the grown ups around them and both have a morbid streak. Most notably, “Frankenweenie” returns the director to suburbia. The film shares a spiritual connection with “Edward Scissorhands.” Both are set in a seemingly ideal small town. Strange experiments gone on under the townfolks’ noses. However, the mad scientist and his creation ultimately are more heroic then the hypocritical and image-obsessed people who run the town. These deeper connections to the director’s past works makes “Frankenweenie” a more rewarding experience then his comparatively shallow last few films.

“Frankenweenie” is a remake of a short film. Which is all too obvious some times. The original short focused on Victor and Sparky. In order to reach feature length run time, the story had to be expanded. Thus we are introduced to a gaggle of Victor’s classmates. After discovering Sparky’s resurrection, these kids are determined to create their own undead pets. The antics of the Weird Girl, with her prophecy-pooping cat, and Toshiaki, a borderline racist stereotype, aren’t particularly deep characters. Scenes devoted to them, like Toshi and fat kid Bob making a soda pop jet pack, are mostly there to pad the run time. The last act, were their own resurrected pets wreck havoc on the town, is fun. The movie tries to tie it in with themes of love. That doesn’t totally wash. The sequences are mostly there to give the movie a big, action-packed ending and less because the story needs them.

Don’t get me wrong. Those scenes are fun. The Sea Monkies’ mischievous rampage is highly entertaining. Burton has flirted with kaiju movies throughout his entire career. Shelley the Giant Turtle attacking a carnival finally allows him to put a real giant monster in one of his movies. However, as the last act drags on, the movie looses some of its spark. The demonic Bat Cat becomes the primary villain for no reason. Sparky rescues Victor from the burning wind mill, a moment straight out of the original short. The movie drags on after this natural end point, the flying cat dragging Sparky back into the fire. Clipping this moment would have made “Frankenweenie’s” ending speedier and sweeter.

Another reason to like “Frankenweenie?” Tim left Johnny Depp and Helena at home. The film has the director reuniting with his original favorite leading lady. Or, at least, her voice anyway. Winona Ryder’s willowy, flighty voice is a good match to Elsa, a willowy and flighty character. Burton graduates Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short both voice multiple part. Both are best as Victor’s understanding, if slightly clueless, parents. Short successfully disguises his voice as Mr. Burgemeister, the grouchy town mayor that is responsible for most of the conflict. O’Hara’s weirdest parts are the spaced-out Weird Girl and the portly Gym Teacher. I was disappointed that Martin Landau didn’t pattern his voice after Vincent Price, even though his character was obviously inspired by the actor. The cast of child voice actors is less inspiring. Charlie Tahan doesn’t have much of a voice. His lack of vocal strength makes Victor seem too weak at times. Meanwhile, Atticus Shaffer is never believable as Edgar, a character that is hard to swallow to begin with. Considering veteran vocal performers Dee Bradley Baker and Frank Welker provided the animal noises, maybe Burton should have cast more pro voice actors.

The movie is awash in references to past films to the point that it even references Burton’s movies. Mostly through Danny Elfman’s score. Elfman’s music almost plays like a best-of collection. The foreboding themes recall the “Batman” films. The score even directly quotes the famous Batman theme. Meanwhile, Victor and Sparky’s friendship get their own theme, a sweeping choral piece inspired by “Edward Scissorhands.” The music's meloncholey tone are best heard when Sparky returns to the pet cemetery, realizing his fate, one of the moodiest, saddest moments in the film. And I have to mention the song that plays over the credits, Karen O.’s “Strange Love,” a gorgeous, adorable love song that perfectly matches the film’s quirky tone.

“Frankenweenie” wasn’t very successful at the time, being overshadowed at the box office by the similarly themed if vastly inferior “Hotel Transylvania.” Some thought it was too scary for kids. (The scenes of a Were-Rat roaming school might indeed be too tense for the really little ones.) Perhaps Disney is too short-sighted to realize that both of these things describe “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” which has since become a universally beloved classic. “Frankenweenie” isn’t as good as that film. However, it probably has the distinction of being the director’s best film in quite a while. Or maybe I’m just partial to a spooky love song to a lost dog. [Grade: B]

You can’t predict the future. However, Burton’s next film, “Big Eyes,” is shaping up to be his most interesting project in years. A biopic about kitsch artist Margaret Keane, and her lawsuit against her credit-stealing husband, the film is delightfully free of the director’s usual cast members. It’s a smaller story, hopefully bringing “Big Fish” to mind. Considering Keane painted a portrait for Burton of his then-girlfriend Lisa Marie, the director even seems to have a personal connection to the story. If the movie’s any good, we’ll find out on Christmas of this year. There might still be time for the director to turn his career around.

Thus concludes my Tim Burton Direcor Report Card. It still took longer then expected but twenty-three reviews and two completed retrospectives is probably decent work for a month and change. I’ll be back soon. Also, I never want to use the phrase “expressionistic” ever again.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (2012) Part 1

15. Dark Shadows

Starting his career as a teen heartthrob, over the years Johnny Depp made the slow transition to quirky leading man. With the major box office success of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, Depp became a genuine movie star and studio draw. Using his new found box office clout, Depp went about getting several dream projects made. He wanted to play his childhood heroes before he became too old to do so. Thus, Depp as Tonto in “The Lone Ranger,” Depp as Kolchak in the upcoming “Night Stalker” feature, and Depp as Barnabas Collins in “Dark Shadows.” Tim Burton agreed to direct seemingly as a favor to his friend. When it was announced that Burton and Depp were adapting the kooky and cheesy, and cultishly beloved, supernatural soap opera, myself and many others were expecting a serious horror film. Then that disastrous first trailer hit and it became clear that “Dark Shadows” was not that kind of movie.

Inspired by the series’ most popular storyline, the film has Barnabas Collins, a vampire, being awoken in the 1970s. Cursed to live as a vampire after spurning the advances of a witch, Barnabas has spent the last two-hundred years locked in a coffin. He finds that same witch has taken over the fishing industry that was originally dominated by Barnabas’ family. So now the vampire has several difficulties to overcome. He has to rebuilt the respectability of the Collins family, battle the still living witch, adapt to the seventies, control his vampiric desires, and earn the love of the reincarnation of his lost fiancĂ©.

The biggest problem with “Dark Shadows” is that it can’t decide upon a tone. The exposition-filled opening is solemn, in keeping with the original soap. Barnabas talks about how he became a vampire and earned the scorn of Angelique. Next, we jump ahead to 1972, when new nanny Victoria arrives in Collinsport and quickly accepts the strange family (and ghosts) that lives there. Upon being dug up, however, “Dark Shadows” becomes a wacky, fish-out-of-water comedy. The vampire is baffled by a McDonalds sign, cars, asphalt roads, and the modern amenities of the day. His vampire powers are frequently played for laughs, such as when he and Angelique destroy a room in the throes of love-making. Even then, “Dark Shadows” can’t decide on a tone. The rivalry between Barnabas and Angelique mostly plays like the kind of big genre spectacle Warners Bros. was probably expecting when they gave the flick a green-light. The two toss each other around in the fashion of a modern superhero blockbuster. “Dark Shadows” attempts to be all these things and succeeds at none of them.

The movie can’t even decide on what type of comedy it wants to be. The movie is full of broad gags. Barnabas is confounded by television and thinks that Alice Cooper is an especially ugly woman. During one montage, we see a bunch of goofy vampire related sight gags. Barnabas brushes his two fangs without being to see his reflection, sleeps either in a big shipping box, hanging from a curtain, or curled up in a wardrobe. His head thumps on an electric synthesizer, the music playing throughout the scene. During one especially groan-worthy moment, he recites Steve Miller lyrics. And yet other bits of comedy are in a darker vein. After attempting to befriend a group of hippies, Barnabus kills all of them. More then a few times, he says deeply un-P.C. things about the social issues of the day. Perhaps if the movie had focused on one type of humor over the other, it would have been more consistently funny. As it is now, the movie never generates laughs.

There’s also the problem of Barnabas as your central character. He is, at best, an ineffectual anti-hero. Upon bursting onto the scene, he kills ten innocent people. Despite being the hero of the film, he ranks up a surprisingly high body count. And none of those folks deserved to die. For reasons the script never backs up, the movie tries to play him as a sexual dynamo that is irresistible to women. Over the run time, four different women throw themselves at him. The most inexplicable of these is Helena Bonham Carter’s Dr. Hoffman, who goes down on him after one measly flattering comment. Upon discovering that the doctor is trying to turn herself into a vampire, Barnabas kills her too in probably the most graphic blood-sucking of the film. The ending tries to sell Barnabas as a romantic hero, having defeated the witch and regain the love of his (after)life. Yet a lame sequel hook shows Dr. Hoffman springing back to life under the sea. Not only is Barnabas a remorseless murderer, he’s not even good at covering his tracks.

Since the movie is based on a soap, it has the problem of having to toss in several competing story lines. The movie is about Barnabas and Angelique’s rivalry. Except for when its about Barnabas and the modern Collins family learning to live together. A plot detail that is frequently lost in the shuffle, and probably should have been focused on more, is Barnabas’ romance with Victoria. They have only four scenes together, I think. There’s little chemistry between Johnny Depp and Bella Heathcote. Even then, there’s other story lines competing for screen time. What about orphan David, who interacts with his mother’s ghost? What about his philandering father, who awkwardly disappears halfway through the film? And here’s Chloe Moretz as a rebellious teenager who is also a werewolf, we find out at the last minute. There’s just a little too much going on in “Dark Shadows.”

For all its tonal back-and-forth, the action packed finale is one of the more innovative things about “Dark Shadows.” Eva Green’s skin begins to crack like a china doll when injured. The final showdown takes place in the middle of the Collins mansion. Using her powers, Angelique makes the paintings on the wall bleed. The wooden statues spring to life, grabbing at the family. Dramatically, flames bursts over the stair. My favorite bit is when the staircase banister leaps to life as a snake. “Dark Shadows” fizzles out afterwards but for those brief moments, it’s actually exciting.

Considering the movie is more-or-less his vanity project, you’d think Johnny Depp would give a better performance. It seems like Depp can’t get a bead on the character either. Barnabas is played as a comedic straight man, reacting cluelessly to the events around him. Except for when he’s a foppish dandy, strutting about like the 1700s never ended. The comedy is tone-deaf but Depp seems more comfortable with it. Whenever Barnabas has to be a romantic lead or an action hero, Depp is more uncertain. The lack of chemistry with his love interest and his lack of heroic conviction make both roles an awkward fit for Depp’s Barnabas.

Slightly better is Eva Green as Angelique. One of the problems with Depp’s character arc is that you have to believe that he doesn’t want to sleep with Eva Green. When she’s looking as spectacular as she does in this film, that’s a hard pill to swallow. It’s not just that she looks great. Green packs the role full of fantastically entertaining villainous intent. She also makes sure Angelique’s motivations are more complex then simple villainy. There’s some tragedy in her as she destroys herself for a man that doesn’t love her. It’s not unfair to say the movie probably would have been interesting if it was about her.

Burton continues to be good about filling his supporting casts with strong actors, even if the scripts aren’t up to the same quality. Burton hasn’t worked with Michelle Pfeiffer since “Batman Returns.” She isn’t around enough in general. Her role here mostly limits her to shouting sternly about the state of the family business. There’s little comedic bite around her attempts to keep Depp in line. But at least she looks pretty bad ass carrying a shotgun. The rest of the Collins family are similarly problematic. Chloe Moretz slinks around in mini-skirts, which I’m sure her creepy internet fan base loved. She brings some okay attitude to the role but doesn’t expand beyond “snarky teenager” very much. Her late film werewolf transformation is fairly embarrassing, though even an actress as strong as Chloe can’t make those ridiculous one-liners work.

Also embarrassing is Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Hoffman, who is boozy and floozy without much substance at all. Johnny Lee Miller is similarly thin as the bitchy Roger Collins. Jackie Earle Haley provides some laughs as Willie Loomis. Bella Heathcote sleepwalks through her duel role as Victoria and Josette. Christopher Lee and Alice Cooper stop by for cameos even if their bit parts aren’t particularly memorable.

For a film set primarily at a spooky, old gothic mansion, you’d expect more of Tim Burton’s style to show up. Not really. I suppose Barnabas could be considered a typical Burton-style outsider, even if he’s not very sympathetic. There are no black and white spirals or slanty Caligari sets in sight. The set design is still gorgeous though. I especially love the elaborate secret passageway that includes a suite of howling wolves and a moving fireplace. The central atrium, with its spooky paintings of dead ancestors, feels very much like the original series if it had money. Danny Elfman’s score is appropriately gothic and includes some retro John Carpenter style synth to fit the era. For the most part though, “Dark Shadows” might as well be directed as Bret Ratner.

“Dark Shadows” was a substantial bomb though not quite on the same level as Depp’s other vanity project the next year. Considering the public's continued interest in supernatural romance, that should tell you how bad those trailers were. The saddest thing about “Dark Shadows” is that, even if it had cleaned up its muddled screenplay and had a more likable protagonists, it probably still wouldn't have been very good. [Grade: C]

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (2010)

14. Alice in Wonderland

Once upon a time, Tim Burton probably would have made a pretty good adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland.” The director has a decent grasp on the absurd. His tendency to sneak darkness and weirdness into mainstream products makes you imagine a truly odd, and sometimes frightening, Wonderland. I’m picturing a blonde Winona Ryder exploring a Wonderland full of black-and-white spirals and creepy, stop-motion puppets based off of John Tenniel’s original illustrations. By 2010, sadly, that Tim Burton was gone. This “Alice in Wonderland” is, instead, a dispassionate action-fantasy flick made by a bored filmmaker.

“Alice” tries to have it both ways. It was sold as an adaptation of the classic story but is, instead, a sequel. Alice isn’t a little girl but a twenty year old woman, on the verge of adulthood. After fleeing her engagement party, she chases after the same White Rabbit and stumbles down the same strange hole in the ground. Despite having lived these events before, Alice goes through many of the familiar motions. There’s a slow-motion fall through an anti-gravity tunnel, a room where she shrinks and grows, a tea party with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, a croquet game with flamingo clubs and hedgehog balls, and a meeting with a Cheshire Cat and a hooka smoking caterpillar. Ultimately, the film is telling a different story, where Alice is an action hero who has to save Wonderland from a tyrannical Red Queen and slay a fearsome Jabberwocky.

There have been many versions of “Alice in Wonderland” over the years: The Disney version, the Czech abstract version, the goth video game version, the anime version, the porno version. This appears to be the version of the story rolled through the Hollywood blockbuster machine, with as many as its eccentricities smoothed out as possible. This is most obvious in the story’s treatment of Alice herself. She’s given the bland character arc of a rebel buckling against conformity. Alice finds her own destiny at the end, as she must. This is odd since the rest of the movie is all about putting her on a pre-destined path. The film regurgitates the tired clichĂ© of the Chosen One, the hero that will save the world as foretold in the ancient prophecy. This is an especially bad fit for Alice but the movie rolls with it anyway, mentioning the prophecy as many times as possible. The movie even gets her in a suit of armor, has her swinging a sword, and dropping an one-liner.

Wonderland and its inhabitants don’t survive the blanding process either. Wonderland itself is shockingly short on wonder. Instead, its grey and drab, a post-war world full of dead trees. The iconic characters are squeezed uncomfortably into established types. The Caterpillar becomes a Yoda-like wise old sage. The Red Queen is a shrieking super villain. The Jabberwocky is a generic dragon, that lumbers like a dinosaur and breathes lightening. The Dormouse is a sword wielding rogue. Worst of all, the Mad Hatter becomes Alice’s love interest, a truly gross decision. Save for some lame attempts to recreate Lewis Carrol’s nonsense prose, 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland” squeezes all the personality out of the source material.

Increasingly, the best things about Burton’s films are their incredible set design. Even “Planet of the Apes” had amazing sets. With “Alice in Wonderland,” the director gave up practical sets for CGI and green screens. This is not a good thing. So much of Wonderland is made in a computer that there’s little weight, grit, or plausibility to the setting. Characters leap around without any care for gravity or physics. Weirdly, despite the amount of money surely spent on it, the effects look very cheap. Worst then the green screen sets are the way live actors and CGI effects are awkwardly fused. Helena Bohnam Carter’s head is blown up to huge size and stuck on a tiny CGI body. Crispin Glover’s legs are stretched out. Matt Lucas’ face is plastered on two rotund, plastic-looking bodies. The effect is more off-putting then cutting edge.

The movie also widely participates in what I call “3D eye-gouging.” That’s a habit engaged in by most 3D flicks but more frequently in the modern day version of the technology. It’s when shit on screen is tossed directly at the viewer, a distracting and obnoxious attempt to remind the audience they’re watching a 3-D film. “Alice in Wonderland” tosses all sorts of things into the watcher’s face: Teacups, birds, lightening, swords, spears, hats, Jabberwockies and Bandersnatches. The movie does it so much that it ceases to be a natural part of the film and becomes a gimmick, continuously taking the watcher out of the film and reminding them they’re watching a movie.

In previous incarnations of the story, Alice was the only centering force in a chaotic, intentionally unfocused story. This “Wonderland” is far more stream-lined but Alice is still the calm center. The film seriously raised the profile of Mia Wasikowska. In a Hollywood overpopulated with British waifs, Wasikowska’s versatility and ability to endear an audience’s sympathy makes her stand out. Wasikowska is one of the best things about “Alice in Wonderland.” The script does not give her much to work with. Indeed, the character repeats the same cycle for most of the first half, bouncing between believing and not believing. Yet Wasikowska is always easy to watch. She winds up making the film far more likable then it would have been otherwise.

She’s certainly more likable then the film’s other major star. This movie marked the point where I officially became sick of Johnny Depp’s bullshit. After the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series made him a major star, the actor’s choices in roles have become less interesting. In “Alice,” he does his typical thing. He wears a ridiculous hat, hideous white face-paint, obviously artificial contact lens, fake teeth, and an awful, frizzy red wig. He switches randomly between accents, an aggressively irritating quirk. The film gives him a major role in the story, a move ill-suited to the character. Depp’s Mad Hatter isn’t particularly mad, playing on the same level as any of Burton’s other eccentric protagonists.

Even more aggravating, the film had the perfect Mad Hatter right there in the shape of Crispin Glover. Imagine how mad Glover’s hatter would have been. Instead, the actor plays the Red Queen’s primary henchman. Glover brings some of his trademark twitchy intensity to the part but he’s mostly going through the villainous steps. The film packs its supporting cast full of great character actors. None of them are given much to do. Stephen Fry’s quiet wit makes him an ideal Cheshire Cat. Alan Rickman’s dry tone is well-suited to the Caterpillar. Anne Hathaway’s trademark sunniness is a good fit for the irrepressibly positive White Queen. All the actors are well cast yet the script only has simple, cliched parts for them to play.

With the exception of Helena Bohnam Carter. Mrs. Tim Burton plays the part as shrill as possible. Despite being the film’s primary villain, the Red Queen is such a joke that you never buy her as a serious threat. The giant head gimmick is more bizarre then funny. The character would be the worst thing about the film if it wasn’t for one specific moment: The Fudderwacking. Jesus Christ, the Fudderwacking. The Mad Hatter celebrates the good guys’ victory by breakdancing, essentially. The film stops dead to showcase this. It is easily the nadir of Tim Burton’s career which is really saying something given his current state.

At least there’s some distinctively Burton-esque imagery here. Upon entering Wonderland, Alice sees a gnarled, grey forest with weird topiary animals rising above. The Tree of the Dead from “Sleepy Hollow” makes a cameo appearance not long after that. Those black and white stripes make an appearance, like in Twiddledee and Twiddledumb’s shirts. Much of the film could have been directed by anyone but at least Burton sneaked in enough of his usual trademarks to identify it as his own.

Despite not being very good, “Alice in Wonderland” made an astonishing amount of money. It’s actually Tim Burton’s most financially successful film, cracking the top ten list of highest grossing films. The film was such a big hit that it started a new trend of dark and gritty re-imaging of classic fairy tales. Just from Disney, the nearly identical “Oz: The Great and Powerful” and “Maleficent” are already out, with “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Alice in Wonderland 2” (which Burton is thankfully not directing) coming soon. I’m not even mentioning all the other similar projects that have come along. You can’t explain the public’s taste. The film is just the latest example of Burton’s slow transformation into a boring studio workhorse. [Grade: C-]

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Director Report Card: Henry Selick (2009)

4. Coraline

In 2009, I wandered into a screening of “Coraline,” not knowing anything about the flick other then it was directed by Henry Selick and based on a book by Neil Gaiman that I hadn’t read yet. With the film being dumped in the doldrums of February, I kept my expectations low. “Coraline” wound up surprising me, proving itself as a visually spectacular and surprisingly sophisticated film. The more I thought about it in the months since seeing it, the more I loved it. The film quickly crept to the top of my best of list that year. I saw the movie on a date, with a girl ironically named Caroline. The relationship didn’t last but my love for the movie did. Even with a giant like “The Nightmare Before Christmas” looming over his entire career, it might still be my favorite Henry Selick movie.

Coraline Jones’ parents, writers for a garden supplies catalog, have moved across country from Michigan to Oregon. Living in a quirky apartment called the Pink Palace, Coraline is bored and frustrated, especially by her workaholic and prickly parents. On the look out for adventure, she discovers a small door hidden in the wall of one room. Crawling through the door at night, Coraline finds a mirror world that’s more colorful, where her parents are happy to see her and flood her with attention. The only problem is that the Other Mother has buttons for eyes. Soon, it becomes clear that the other dimension is not as harmless as it appears. Soon, Coraline finds her self in the middle of a terrifying adventure.

 “Coraline” is easily the best looking stop-motion animated film ever made. With “Corpse Bride,” Tim Burton and his cohorts wanted to make a stop motion film that looked like it was CGI. With “Coraline,” Selick embraced the Earthiness of the medium. Everything in the film has a hand-made quality to it. The film emphasizes that the characters live on miniature sets, beautiful realized model buildings. There’s a tactile sense to the puppets. Their skin looks real, marked with freckles and cells. The movement of their hair has weight and heft. The clothes the characters wear were knitted for them with tiny knitting needles. My favorite gag is fog created with fluffy cotton balls. Even the way the characters move have an expressiveness to them. The facial features are animated and realistic. Sagging bellies and breasts bounce with movement. An amazing amount of detail and work was put into creating this world, making it appear lived-in and realistic.

“Coraline” is visually spectacular in other ways too. Coraline’s waking world is frequently drab and grey. The Other World, in comparison, is colorful. Some of the film’s best sequence take place in this alternate universe. Upon entering, it’s immediately obvious to Coraline that this world is brighter then her own. Her father sings songs with the assistance of a robotic piano. The food prepared for her looks delicious despite being tiny and constructed. One of the most lovely moments in the film is when the Other Father presents Coraline with a beautiful, brilliant garden. Animated plants spring to life, tickling the girl. Bright red flowers open, corresponding to the music. Smiling Jack-O-Lanterns pop out of the water. The Father carries her on a vehicle that looks like a cross between a motorcycle and a preying mantis. They fly above, looking down on a beautifully rendered display of flowers, plants, and stones. “Coraline” was sold as a 3D spectacle and it’s one of the few times that technology actually made the theatrical experience better. The movie is gorgeous to look at.

Despite being made after a nine year hiatus, Henry Selick hadn’t lost any of his visual flair in the time between “Monkeybone” and “Coraline.” The director’s trademark point-of-view shots appear several times. The camera follows Coraline as she swings over a theater or as a mouse bounces down a ramp. It even appears during quieter moment, like at the very end when Coraline is peacefully handing out drinks to her friends and family. Probably the best use of this device is when Coraline crawls through the tunnel connecting her world to the Other Dimension. As she stumbles through the bright blue passageway, so does the audience. Selick’s direction continues to be highly cinematic. Wybie enters with the camera swooping around him on his motorcycle, just for one example. “Coraline” looks good for multiple reasons.

The movie is really pretty. Yet what makes it truly memorable is its cast of characters. Coraline Jones is a great protagonist. The movie doesn’t back away from her prickliness. She’s mean to Wybie. Her parents are a bit rude but, even then, Coraline’s sarcasm towards them seems disrespectful. These are accurate examples of what it’s like to be a thirteen year old. Coraline is ultimately adventurous and strong. She’s possessed of a quirky sense of humor, best displayed when she attempts to convince her mom to buy her a new pair of gloves. In the final act, she straps on an arsenal of unique items and heads into the Other World to face the witch. During these moments, she comes off like a pint-sized bad ass. The movie doesn’t compromise her sense of realness but Coraline is a resourceful, incredibly endearing character.

Around her is a quirky supporting cast of characters. Mom always a neck brace which often look more like really big turtlenecks. She’s more then able to match her daughter’s sarcasm. Dad, meanwhile, drearily sits at his computer when not humming silly songs while handing out nasty looking dinners. The Pink Palace is full of oddball characters. Mr. Bobinsky might be an old alcoholic. His blue skin and talk of invisible mice doesn’t help his case. Yet he leaps around with incredible acrobatic skill. Living beneath the Jones’ residence are Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, two elderly women who were burlesque dancer in their younger days. Despite one moving with a walker and another being nearly blind, both still seem willing to relive their glory days. They also have a wall full of stuffed dead dogs and seem a little too eager for their latest pets to join them. The mischievous Wybie, who wears a welding mask painted with a skull and takes photographs with banana slugs, seems practically normal in comparison.

The term “modern fairy tale” gets thrown around a lot. However, the term seems like a good fit for “Coraline.” The story owes a lot to “Hansel and Gretel.” A child on the verge of adulthood wanders into a dark and sinister world. She’s lured in with treats, an idealized version of her home in this case. However, it’s a trap created by an evil witch that eats children. Unlike most modern fairy tale renditions, Coraline and her family are in real danger. The Other Mother isn’t just a variation on the old witch archetype, she’s also a take on the wicked fey, who kidnaps children and loves to play games. “Coraline” also understands the appeal of those stories. Both this film and “Hansel and Gretel” play on the unspoken fear every child has: That their parents secretly hate them. The Belledame prays on this fear, using it to exploit children so she can feed on their innocence.

The film is ultimately about wish fulfillment versus reality, and the horror and honor that can exist in-between. At first, the Other World meets all of Coraline’s whims and dreams. The parents are loving, attentive, and meet her every need. However, even at the beginning, she seems slightly put off by their generosity. After it becomes clear that the Other Mother has evil intentions, Coraline escapes back to her now-empty home. Alone in the house, she sits in mom and dad’s bed, between two pillows posed as her parents, weeping. Kids might resent their parents from time to time but ultimately they love and need them. Coraline loves her parents enough that she’s willing to fight off an evil spider monster to get them back. This is a proactive “Hansel and Gretel” story, one where the lost child slays the witch and its still able to reconcile with the abandoning parents.

“Coraline” is also something rare: A horror movie made for kids. From the beginning, the film is far more low-key then most other kid’s flicks. There’s no loud comic relief, the pace is slow, and the story is willing to build atmosphere. The realistically thorny dialogue marks the movie as edgier then expected too. However, from the moment the heroine’s dream world turns on her, the movie shows an amazingly willingness to get creepy. The way the Other Father is reduced to a mushed-mouth automaton, moved about by forces beyond is will, is off-putting and weird. The Other Mother morphs from an attractively human form to something else entirely. Every point of her is at a jagged angle, from her shoulders to her face. As Coraline continues to match her efforts, the Belldame’s appearance becomes more and more monstrous until, in the final reel, she’s a spider monster composed of wiry, pointed steel. The villain’s various tests has Coraline up against a man-eating venus fly trap made of stone and dirt, a murderous giant bug, a flock of bat-wing Scotty dogs (an image that easily could have been ridiculous but instead plays as creepy), human-taffy hybrids that want to tear her eyes out, and empty clothes eerily brought to life through squirming rats. The film’s visuals are charming and uncanny in equal measure. I hope that, when modern day kids want to watch something a little creepy, they reach for “Coraline,” a movie that doesn’t let the “kid’s movie” label keep it from being scary.

Speaking of that last act… “Coraline” is a bit slow moving in its middle sections but successfully coasts on its lovable characters and a sense of building uneasiness. Before the final lap, the quirky supporting characters gift Coraline with objects that will come in handy while battling the Belledame. Her pack full of items, she heads into the strange world. After challenging the evil witch, Coraline fights her way through four different scenarios. In a different area, she fights a specific threat, one that requires a different set of skills to defeat. After each enemy is bested, the surrounding zone fades to white and crumbles. After clearing the three stages, she confronts the Other Mother for one last final fight. It’s not surprising that “Coraline” would be adapted into a video game. The movie already mimics the typical game structure. There’s even a timer tracking Coraline’s motions, in the form of a silhouette of a button slowly eclipsing the moon. Whether this was intentional or not, I can’t say. It’s not a problem, as it provides a dramatic push in the final act. However, the similarities are slightly distracting.

Normally, I bitch when a director casts face-actors in roles that could have been filled by experienced voice actors. However, Henry Selick knows what he’s doing. Dakota Fanning probably would have been great as Coraline even in live action. Her voice works for the character’s snotty attitude yet still makes her extraordinarily strong. Teri Hatcher does well when voicing mom’s bitchier elements but a seductive side comes through as the Other Mother. John Hodgman is hilarious as the put-upon father before revealing a previously unseen Bing Crosby-style smoothness to his voice as the Other Father. Of course, Keith David is a veteran voice-over artist. Usually cast as stern authority figures or strong action heroes, David instead voices the Cat here, a mischievous if faithful figure that can freely transverse world. The role allows David to play a foppish dandy for once, his rich baritone proving well suited to the style.

Another reason “Coraline” is enchanting is its music. The nontraditional score combines an eerie children’s choir, humming nonsense words, with sparse piano and orchestral work. The opening track, later expanded during the credits into a number called “Dreaming,” sets the mood, as we watch the Other Mother’s spider-claws build the unusual doll that starts the story in motion. The wistful choir music provides an otherworldly tone to the film. The music is lovely to the ear without sounding like any other score. It is, without exaggeration, one of my favorite film scores in recent memory. Even the sole pop song on the soundtrack, “The Other Father Song” provided by They Might Be Giants, fits the film’s quirky tone.

Though not an enormous hit, “Coraline” was successful enough that its production company, Laika, has made a habit of producing quirky, visually similar animated films, like the also quite good “ParaNorman” and the upcoming “The Boxtrolls." “Coraline” had a pre-built-in cult following, made up of Selick and Gaiman fans. Yet the movie stands on its own merits. It’s more then just a feast for the eyes but a creepy and powerful fable. It was rightfully nominated for a Best Animated Picture Oscar that year and, in a year without an unstoppable power house like “Up,” would have won. Great as that movie is, history might show “Coraline” becoming a greater classic. [Grade: A]

The critical success of "Coraline" brought Henry Selick back into the public eyes. Since then, the director seems to have toiled on films that either didn't get made or are currently stuck in development hell. He was attached to another Neil Gaiman penned project called "The Graveyard Book," which seemed like a perfect fit for his style, but Selick has since left that project. He was briefly attached to a live action project called "A Tale Dark and Grim." That seems to have been put on the back-burner in favor of "The Shadow King," a long gestating and troubled project that Selick wrote himself. That appears to finally be moving forward and I hope to see it soon.

Revisiting Selick's films have made it clearer to me what an underrated, wonderfully talented filmmaker he is. Even his worst movie still has attributes that are unique to the filmmaker. I really like the guy and I hope he makes more stuff going forward into the future.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (2007)

13. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

There was a time when Tim Burton and Johnny Depp took time off between working with each other. There was four years between the Eds, Scissorhands and Wood, and five between “Ed Wood” and “Sleepy Hollow.” By 2007, that had all changed. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is the third film in a row the two would make together. It came in the middle of a five film run for the two that wouldn’t be broken until 2012’s “Frankenweenie.” Cast opposite Depp was Helena Bonham Carter, Burton’s wife and herself five films deep in a seven film streak. Neither Depp nor Carter are singers while Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett are frequently voted two of the most difficult to sing roles in all of musical theater. This haphazard casting decision marks “Sweeney Todd” as a product of Burton’s latter-day laziness.

The film is, of course, adapted from Stephen Sondheim’s beloved stage musical, which was itself adapted from a non-singing play that was inspired by the original penny dreadful and British urban legend. The story is well known. Sweeney Todd is actually Benjamen Barker, a once normal barber driven to revenge by the rape of his wife and kidnapping of his daughter. As Todd, he slits the throats of his customers whose dead bodies are then cooked into pies by Mrs. Lovett, the baker who lives down stair. Though acting as a serial killer, Todd’s actual goals are those of revenge, as he hopes to have the villainous Judge Turpin in his chair someday soon.

The deeply cynical world-view of Sondheim’s play seems to match up with Burton’s increasingly down-hill view of humanity. London as portrayed in the film resembles Burton’s Gotham. It’s a dark, foreboding place that’s always shrouded in fog and the sun never shines. All the public officials are crooked, if not actively sadistic. The state of the city is such that a serial killer can off victims under the guise of a legitimate business and no one ever catches on. Cannibalism actually proves to be a great busy model, as cooking people meat into her pies causes Mrs. Lovett’s business to blossom. As summed up in the opening number, 1848’s London is not a nice place. In a setting such as this, a revenge crazed murderer easily becomes an anti-hero worth rooting for.

I remember being discouraged when I saw the trailers for “Sweeney Todd.” Johnny Depp in a black-and-white fright wig, singing and dancing around the streets of London while holding two straight razors, seemed incredibly silly. Out of context, that’s still true. Within the film, however, it fits in fine. Burton’s films have always taken place in a world just removed from reality. Oddly, this makes him a good choice to direct a musical. “Sweeney Todd” piles on the director’s trademarks to the point of self-parody. Depp and Carter look ridiculous, their skin sheet-white with perpetual black circles under their baggy eyes. The whole movie is shot in a blueish grey tone, providing a constantly dreary atmosphere. The characters’ outfits frequently feature black and white stripes. While the sets aren’t all at jagged angles, they’re exaggerated enough to classify as “expressionistic.” Every shot in the movie is color corrected, giving “Sweeney Todd” a deeply artificial look. If this was an attempt to recapture the feel of the stage play, I can’t say. It seems Burton was aiming for gritty but wound up with slick and shiny instead.

Even if “Sweeny Todd” in general doesn’t look very good, you can still see the artist that Burton once was striving to free himself. A few times the director’s love for memorable one-off shots shine through. Reunited with his razor blades, Todd stretches out his arms, the camera reeling out through the shop window. After reaching his epiphany that everyone deserves to die, Todd falls to his knees in the street, razors in hand, screaming towards the heavens. At the end of the first act, the director’s reflects Depp’s face in the razor’s blade. The shot is mirrored at the end except this time the blade is dripping with blood. The final shot of the film, bleeding lovers entwined in each other arms, is simultaneously poetic and disturbing. Burton does a good job of lending a cinematic feel to a stage play, even if parts of the film are still somewhat flatly shot.

The most interesting thing about “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in any incarnation is the character of Sweeney. Todd is a sociopath, an anti-hero, and even a vehicle for social commentary. Though initially only interested in revenge, and occasionally killing to cover his tracks, its not long before Todd is advocating wide-scale murder and cannibalism. He is indifferent to human suffering. Yet in such an unscrupulous world, Todd is a man of principals. He murders without remorse only because he truly believes every one is equally unworthy of life. Judge Turpin is a despicable character, a rapist who damns children to prison during the day and lusts after his teenage adopted daughter by night. Todd kills innocents too but at least he has a solid motivation behind his violence. As displayed in the song “A Little Priest,” the barber especially relishes targeting the upper-crust of society – the clergy, politicians, and the rich. He is a man chewed up and spat out by the system who now intends on getting revenge on that system, one slit throat at a time.

Despite flirting with the horror genre all throughout his career, Burton’s films rarely feature explicit bloodshed. “Sweeney Todd” has the director showing his love for Grand Guignol for the first time since “Sleepy Hollow.” Both films have a similar approach to the red stuff. In both, the blood is purposely fake looking. Here, it’s orange-red, too thick, and spurts with abandon. Each throat slashing is followed by a geyser of gore. At one point, the blood even sprays on the camera. It’s exaggerated enough that a black comedy quickly sets in. During the reprise of “Johanna,” easily the prettiest song in the film, Sweeney dispassionately cuts throats, impartial to the bloodshed around him. Bodies slump down the chute, cracking on the floor, like a particularly grisly slapstick comedy. The film is bloody as hell but realism isn’t on the director’s mind. Instead, the goal is somewhere between late period Hammer horror and Monty Python.

How much one enjoys the film is largely dependent on one’s tolerance for musical theater. While an avid lover of rock opera and occasional filmed musicals, I find I have little patience for musical theater. I’ve seen a few Sondheim plays and find I’m real uncertain on the guy. He has an ear for word play and his lyrics are frequently clever. However, he’s always striving for a catchy melody and rarely finds it. Too many of “Sweeny’s” songs are dialogue set to music that would have been better spoken. “The Worst Pies in London” and “Poor Thing” are basically character exposition set to music and neither ever finds a beat. “A Little Priest” is the worst, a rambling number heavily hampered by too many lyrics. A lot of the numbers, like “The Contest” or “Wait” get lost in the shuffle between bigger, more memorable numbers. The theatrical style of piling songs upon songs makes it difficult for any one number to rise to the top. By leaning heavily on reoccurring motifs, it’s not always easy to even distinguish one song from another.

Yet a few songs do rise to the top. “Johanna,” the reprise especially, is mostly devoted to one strong voice and features sad yet oddly hopeful lyrics and a stirring melody. (That is, if you cut out the annoying Beggar Woman sections.) “Not While I’m Around” functions similarly and gives Toby a stand-out number. “Pretty Women” is another strong moment, as a duet between Depp and Alan Rickman, their voices pitched at different levels. “My Friends” probably features the best singing Depp does in the film, as his low voice works best with the slower music and darker lyrics. “Sweeney Todd” has enough good music to function successfully as a musical even if the all-together experience is close to exhausting.

Another disappointing trademark of musical theater is that plays have to be long. “Sweeney Todd: The Movie” clips several of the play’s more extraneous subplots. Yet even then, the film features two subplots that end up adding little to the story. Most of all is the romance between Anthony and Johanna. Anthony rescues Todd from the ocean at story’s start, a part that could have easily been filled by anyone. Johanna, and the lust Turpin feels for her, establishes the villain’s rottenness. Yet many other things accomplish the same feat. Todd never knowingly meets his daughter again, making you wonder why the writers didn’t kill her off to begin with. Though they’re present, neither Anthony or Johanna affect the final act. For most of the movie, the character of Toby doesn’t contribute much either. A shaving contest with his fraudulent master is Todd’s big reveal to the public but another event could have easily accomplished the same thing. It’s not until the very end that Toby proves any purpose to the overall story. Even after a judicious pruning, Broadway story styling still proves too ungainly for Hollywood.

At least we get that bad ass ending out of it. Sweeney finally takes his revenge on Judge Turpin, in fantastic fashion. His true identity is revealed and, before the villain can accurately grasp it, he is spectacularly dispatched. Before hand, Todd unknowingly executed his beloved wife, still alive and living as a vagrant woman. This brings an element of Greek tragedy to the story, the protagonist brought down by his own doing. We learn just how bad a person Mrs. Lovett truly is, willing to lie and condone murder to fulfill her school girl crush. Burning to death in her own oven is a suitably ironic ending. Todd seems to extend his neck for his killer, ready to end his miserable life. The final act focuses on the film’s primary and most important characters. It’s so focused and so good that you wonder why all that other stupid stuff is even in there.

While “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” was generally well received, two elements were roundly criticized. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter can’t sing. Depp does a limp Bowie impersonation for many of the songs, his shallow, powerless voice seeming hopelessly out of his element. As outclassed as Depp is, at least he still packs some anger and indignation into the songs. Separate from the weak singing, it’s actually a decent performance. The same can’t be said for Carter. Her voice is so willowy and weak. She frequently sounds like a little kid attempting to sing like a grown-up. Considering how wordy the lyrics she’s given frequently are, you wonder why Burton ever thought she was suitable for the part. “By the Sea,” a song that easily could have been excised as it contributes nothing to the story, best exemplifies Carter’s lack of vocal prowess.

At least Burton had the good sense to pack the supporting cast full of prime players. Alan Rickman excels as playing characters with a misplaced sense of moral superiority. That, combined with the actor’s rarely used strength for sleaziness, makes him the perfect choice for Turpin. Also perfectly cast is Timothy Spall as Beadle Bamford, Turpin’s sidekick. Spall’s rat-like facial features and conniving demeanor make him an ideal choice for the part. Sacha Baron Cohen, still best known as Borat at the time, appeared to be an oddball choice. Yet the actor’s ability to create ridiculous accents and his total lack of comedic shame makes him a pretty decent Pirelli. Surprisingly, Cohen winds up having one of the strongest singing voices in the cast. Unlike Carter’s wavering Cockney accent, Cohen sings fine while still maintaining a ridiculous put-on accent.

The visuals are overly glossy, the lead performances are uneven, and the script still isn’t as focused as it could have been. Yet “Sweeney Todd” is still one of Burton’s better latter day films. The movie has a strong center and several moments of unexpected power. A dazzling finale makes up for a lot of the problems faced earlier. Its blades are more dull then sharp but far more of the film then expected makes the cut. [Grade: B-]

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]