September 24, 2005

Corpse Bride

About ten minutes into Corpse Bride, I was ready to dismiss it as another example of textbook Tim Burton style and aesthetic over substance — and even more disappointingly, the style of this is less thrilling and engaging than that of its predecessor, 1993's The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Walking out, I more fully understood the depth of Burton's evolution. He is so adept at wielding fantastic and curious style and slightly ominous whimsy that these elements no longer need to be the focus nor the point. The setting captures what I was maybe hoping for in The Brothers Grimm with the such curious reversals as a monochromatic world of the living sketched over a vibrant underworld of passion and lust. The Corpse Bride herself draws the eye to her tarnished beauty at any given moment because she alone among our leads has colour in her cheeks. (Never mind that they are blue...)
Still, the sheer invention on display here doesn't command a fraction of what Nightmare unleashed upon the screen. That was a whirlwind, a carnival, throwing fantastic things at the audience without ever truly pausing to catch its breath. Danny Elfman's songs here are a distraction instead of a centrepiece. It isn't Nightmare, and thankfully it doesn't try to be.
Because somewhere between 1993 and 2005, Tim Burton became a true storyteller. Not as much needs to be on the screen when the characters carry the burden instead of the set pieces. This film realizes finally the potential of Big Fish. After a impressive career of memorable theatrics, Tim Burton has finally made me care.
The entire plot revolves around a classic love triangle in the most undisguised of terms. I am ready to be tired of the plot device, and yet this story (based on a Russian folktale) utilizes it to its fullest and most honest potential. Unusually, the groom, his living fiancée, and his not-so-living bride are all fundamentally decent beings. Which pairing I rooted for at any given moment depended entirely on the revelations that had come immediately before. We spend the most time with Victor and his late espoused Emily, so they are each allowed a greater share of the flaws and indecision. But once the time had come for a final decision to be made, my heart went out equally to all three. It seemed that there was no solution that would not leave a character I empathised with disappointed and alone.
The actual solution is the film's greatest hat trick of all. For the first time, Burton transcends his trademark haunted immature affection of death for a moment of graceful awe that approaches the truly divine. I wish more fairy tale adaptations would capture both the focused simplicity of narrative and the undiluted integrity of storytelling on display here. In its own unassuming way, Corpse Bride has mined the secrets behind Walt Disney's early magic and repackaged the effect for modern audiences. An utterly involving confection. ()


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