Monday, October 27, 2014

Stop-Motion Creepiness Month: Corpse Bride

"Tell me my dear... Can a heart still break after it's stopped beating?"

So we're taking a rather large leap forward in time, but in all honesty, I just don't think that any major releases between 1996's James and the Giant Peach and 2005's Corpse Bride really qualifies to be grouped into the "creepy stop-motion family movie" sub genre.  In fact, the only major stop motion release between those nine years was Chicken Run, and though Aardman's films have their dark elements, they don't really register as "something you watch around Halloween."  I don't exactly know why there was such a drought of stop-motion films for nearly a decade; maybe James underperformed and discouraged future projects, maybe the advent of computer animation stole away some of stop-motion's novelty three-dimensional effect.  Whatever the reason, Tim Burton wasn't interested.   Perhaps as an attempt to recapture the magic of Nightmare, he assembled what is now his regular crew of stars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, and composer Danny Elfman to create another stop-motion musical with a distinct tone that mixes the macabre with light-hearted comedy.

Let's get one thing straight--I am not discrediting the animation in Nightmare.  But wow, when you watch that film and then Corpse Bride... the difference is obvious.  With new digital photographing techniques at the animators' disposal and what appear to be major leaps forward in the technology for stop-motion puppetry, Corpse Bride looks absolutely magnificent.  The characters move so fluidly and the range of emotions they express is lightyears beyond what could previously be done.  Even though the Laika studio has made even more innovations in stop-motion as far as facial expressions and set detail, certain elements of Corpse Bride (movement of clothing, for instance) set a standard that holds up to this day.

The story is based on a Russian folktale, and while I don't know the details of the original story, the film version takes place in a European village during Victorian times that is decidedly not in Russia.  Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp) and Victoria (Emily Watson) are two young, sweet-natured people who have overbearing and extreme parents (in a genius bit of character design, Victor's mother is portly while his father is stick-thin, while Victoria's are just the opposite).  Their parents have arranged a marriage between the two of them, which in most fairy tale movies would mean one of them would be detestable (or if it were a bad rom-com, they'd bicker endlessly), but both of them are likable, shy people who actually might be able to make a relationship work.  When Victor wanders off into the woods to practice his wedding vows, he places the ring on what he thinks is a root; what he's actually done is place it one the finger of a bride-to-be who was murdered there years ago, and now her soul has been awakened by Victor's marriage proposal.  The corpse's name is Emily (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter... have you won Tim Burton bingo yet?), and she takes him down to the depths of the Land of the Dead.  Here, souls from years past are in great spirits, getting drunk at the bars and having more fun than they ever did when they were alive.

The story chugs along at a good pace, with Victor's plunge into the Land of the Dead mostly played for laughs and hardly ever for scares (though Emily's resurrection scene is legitimately creepy).  Truth be told, the world of the living is a much more unsettling place, with exaggerated character designs, colorless set pieces and an overall air of unpleasantness.  That's not a flaw; it's exactly the feeling Burton and co-director Mike Johnson seem to be going for.  It makes the contrast to the Land of the Dead stuff even more fun, and when you experience that burst of color and energy, it's a welcome breath of fresh air.  The designs for the inhabitants of the Land of the Dead are well done, even if they aren't quite as memorable as anything in Nightmare.  And of course, there's the villain; Lord Barkis Bittern (voiced by Richard E. Grant), the con-artist who murdered Emily and is now after Victoria for her dowery, unaware that she and her family are flat broke and are only marrying to ensure their own existence.  He has a great voice and a menacing laugh, and while he doesn't have much depth, he does have personality to spare.

The main characters are very likable, and the comically dark nature of the parents give way to some of the funniest parts of the movie.  While there's wit to be found, there are also a lot of puns.  If you have a low tolerance for puns, you may find yourself cringing more often than not during Corpse Bride ("Dead end!" "Play dead!" "I'm the head waiter!")  Jokes that work more effectively are visual jokes, such as the "Harryhousen" piano that Victor plays or a skeleton's jaw literally dropping off in astonishment.  It nonetheless remains charming, and the story is so economically told that you never feel like a joke is dragging on or a story beat is lingering aimlessly; given that stop-motion is so time-intensive, it only makes sense to strip your story down to the bare essentials, and that's exactly what Burton and Johnson have done here.  I often find myself wishing the movie was longer, just so I can spend some more time with the characters, and that's definitely a good sign.

The songs by Danny Elfman are good, but nothing hit me as hard as the songs in Nightmare. First off, Corpse Bride has less than half the number of songs, and secondly, the songs are worked into the story very leisurely rather than existing because they need to.  It just doesn't feel like a musical most of the time.  I think most will agree that the best song, and probably the best scene in the movie, is the "Remains of the Day" number.  It's a jazzy, bombastic number that sports beautiful, playful animation and moves the story forward.  It's no surprise that Danny Elfman provides the voice for Bonejangles, the skeleton who sings it.  There's also gotta be some kind of intentional homage to Disney's classic short The Skeleton Dance somewhere in there.  I only wish the rest of the songs had this manic energy, or at least that there were more songs to enjoy (a duet for Victor and Victoria, maybe?).  I will say that the score is outstanding, and the piano piece that Victor plays is gorgeous.  Emily's entrance music is haunting (as is her "dancing in the moonlight" scene, both for different reasons).  Elfman pours tons of emotion into the orchestration, complimenting the stylish visuals with a giddily creepy atmosphere.

What else is there to say? Corpse Bride is light on its feet, featuring genre-defining animation, likable characters, great music, and lots of heart.  As a spiritual successor to The Nightmare Before Christmas, it may be lacking, but that's admittedly a tough act to follow.  Tightly-wound as it is, I would have liked to see more interaction scenes between the three main characters, but what we have is pretty solid nonetheless.  The visual humor is fantastic, the voice work is top-notch, and there's creepiness to spare without there ever being any unpleasant grotesqueries.  If this had been the pinnacle of the stop-motion industry, that might have been fine, but I'm oh-so-glad Laika stepped up to the plate to work their magic just a few years later.

Creepiness score: 6 eyes in me soup out of 10.

Movie score: 8/10