Victor Van Dort (Depp), while memorising wedding vows in the woods, accidentally finds himself married to Emily (Bonham Carter), who dwells in the land of the dead. Emily is delighted with her new husband, but Victor still wants to marry his original fian
The reason Tim Burton is an always-in-work A-list director, while the comparably talented Terry Gilliam struggles to get compromised films made, is that he has an uncanny knack of adapting famous material by other people — whether the Batman comics, a Roald Dahl children’s book or ‘The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow’ — into films that are at once value-for-money crowd-pleasers balancing charm and chills and oddly personal little exercises in his own obsessions. Very occasionally, he takes a chance and tries something which feels completely his own.
If Charlie And The Chocolate Factory was Burton’s big picture for 2005, this is his miniature. With its brief running time, tight little story and sweet/sad Gothic fairy-tale feel, it’s more like the live-action Edward Scissorhands than Burton’s previous animated venture, The Nightmare Before Christmas. Design elements are held over from Nightmare, which was directed by Henry Selick, and Danny Elfman returns with more songs (livelier than they are memorable), but Corpse Bride, which Burton co-directed with animator Mike Johnson, is a different prospect, maybe a trickier sell to a holiday audience even at Hallowe’en, although finally as affecting.
The Johnny Depp-voiced, long-legged, shock-haired Victor is yet another of Burton’s film alter egos, demonstrating his inner sensitivity with piano duets, but this is the first Burton film since Batman Returns to give much space to female yearnings.
Victor might seem like a hesitant, Scissorhanded misfit in the drab world of the living, but the title character is the blue-skinned, fish-lipped, mostly-rotted Emily. Despite the fact that one eyeball is frequently popped by a chatty maggot, Emily is an alluring creation — cute and repulsive at the same time, and invested with a lot of heart. And the Corpse Bride’s rival, Victoria, who could easily get squeezed out of our affections, is as lovingly characterised.
The central irony is that the living world is cold, bitter, restrictive and self-interested, while the underworld is warm, colourful, frivolous and generous. This means that the story is controlled until Victor is dragged under the graveyard, when it makes way for gruesome gags about detached body parts. Thankfully, it does get back to a properly Victorian finish at the altar, with melodramatic villainy, sacrifice and a happy resolution.
A precious thing, if likely to please refined aesthetes and odd children rather than win over Pixar-sized crowds.