Originally posted February 2006

Please be warned there are spoilers in this review.

I went to The Corpse Bride expecting something fantastical and whimsical, much like Burton's earlier The Nightmare Before Christmas (TNBC). In a way it's a shame this movie did not come before TNBC, as it isn't exactly bad… it just isn't very good — especially when we know what Burton is actually capable of.

Simple sums

To me The Corpse Bride felt very much like a little children's storybook, in that it stuck rigidly to telling only the barest, simplest plot outline. There was no extra baggage included (such as character development or marvelous set designs); it was an extremely short and straightforward tale.

That's fine for a children's book, but I'm not sure it works so well for a movie. Further, there were some scenes which I thought would be rather terrifying for a small child — I found them a bit creepy myself — so I'm not sure it's really a children's story either.

The "Above-world" was one of the most horribly monochrome, visually dull, sterile, frighteningly soulless places I've ever seen, to be honest. There didn't appear to be any life or joy visible anywhere, or perhaps even possible. It made me wonder a bit why anyone would want to live there. Was the alternative (death in the rather colorful Underworld) really so much worse?

Perhaps unsurprisingly in such a terminally dull looking place, everyone was a cliché. There weren't really any good guys (using the term 'guys' to denote both female and male characters). There were pathetic guys and insipidly colorless guys and cruelly thoughtless guys… but I didn't find anyone I could really empathize with. Even the two brides (the movie's most visually colorful and appealing characters) made me want to shake them both and yell, "WAKE UP! Get a personality, for heaven's sake!!"

The eye-popping maggot didn't do much for me. The gag repeated a bit too often, and the Peter Lorre voice on what was basically a Jiminy Cricket replacement left something to be desired. Further, the corpse bride herself was rather… peculiarly portrayed. Did the movie's creators really mean to make her more buxom and sexually appealing than the live bride? Necrophilia has always seemed a bit revolting to me; was normalizing it the goal or just an attempt to be culturally titillating?

The villain wasn't clichéd so much as he was… petty. Damagingly so, alas — he was not terribly villainous nor surprising, and ultimately not very interesting. As soon as the shadow appeared in the first flashback, I found myself wondering how Burton would get the two of them back together without making the corpse bride even more miserable. It was handled okay, I think… although frankly I can't imagine marrying someone on so little knowledge of them, and I find the emphasis on marriage as a be-all and end-all to be a bit… destructively archaic? Maybe I'm just over-reacting.

If music be the food of love…

Much of the background music kept giving me an itchy "haven't I heard this before somewhere?" feeling, which I didn't like — was it all re-used? Also, the first song in the Underground I found somewhat jarring. Every other song was led into rather nicely, but that particular one had this really moody-creepy-scary intro — and then all of a sudden, WHAM! -we're into a smooth-jazz routine. It was… a little odd.

On the other hand, I really liked the piano duet, and I liked the way the story was enhanced by the songs. There was only one song I found hard to understand, and that was mostly just a blurry sounding chorus. Also, to be fair to the movie, my companion at the time (a former theatre major) said he didn't have any problems with the musical numbers, and thought they all worked well.

Fables and meaning

From research done by a friend (thank you, Brian K.) I now know the premise of the movie is based on Russian folk stories. You can apparently read more on this subject in Wikipedia, but here's what Brian sent me:

In the original folktale, a woman is killed on her wedding day and is buried in her wedding gown. Later, a man on his way to his own wedding sees her ring finger poking out of the ground and thinks that it's a stick. As a joke, he puts his bride's wedding ring on the finger and dances around it, singing and reciting his marriage sacrament. The woman's corpse emerges from the ground (with the man's ring on her finger) and declares herself married to the man.

The folktale was born of the anti-Jewish Russian pogroms of the 19th Century, in which young women were ripped from their carriages and killed on the way to their weddings. In the Jewish tradition, a body is buried in the clothes in which it died, and so the brides were buried in their gowns.

The original folktale usually ends with the rabbis deciding to annul the corpse's marriage and the live bride swearing that she will live her marriage in the corpse's memory, part of the Jewish tradition of honoring the dead through the lives and good works of the living.

I found it interesting our modern version of the story replaces ethnic bigotry with financial greed, but still demonstrates cultural issues on the passive bodies of women. Not much appears to have changed, in that respect.

Compound interest

One of the most wonderful parts of The Nightmare Before Christmas was its amazing backgrounds and sets. The world was alive with charm and movement and mystery — you never knew what you'd see happening behind the main action. I understand this is a very difficult technological accomplishment for stop-action movies. I just wish there'd been a bit more occurring in the Above-world of The Corpse Bride — it was so sterile it looked like it had been bleached to death, then dyed black.

Further, at only 76 minutes, I can't help but wonder why this wasn't saved for a lovely Hallowe'en TV special, where it could be enjoyed and delighted over for years. Plot and character development aren't as necessary in seasonal TV specials, after all. I suspect this would have been perfect for both delight-able adults as well as kids, in that venue — safe in their homes, even the scariest scenes aren't quite so bad. Why was this made a movie?

In the end, The Corpse Bride was cute, and it had some charming bits. Some of the lines were funny, some of the visual gags worked. I just found myself wishing it had a little more heart, like The Nightmare Before Christmas.

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