A dead-on tale of young love

MovieReview B+

September 23, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,sun movie critic

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride will be hailed for its macabre imagination and inventive farce. But it also elegantly renders an archetypal teenage tale. An awkward boy botches his pursuit of his true love (who loves him anyway). A more aggressive girl catches him on the rebound. She ends up giving him strength and confidence and pushing him closer to adulthood.

Naturally, because this is a Burton movie, the girl catalyst happens to be dead.

The late great Joe Ranft, the story chief of Pixar who died tragically in August, launched this production when he handed Burton a Russian folktale about an unlucky-in-love man who mistakenly marries a formerly live bride. But the way the story connects with a key chapter in many a nerd's life is, I think, what inspired Burton, the poet laureate of movie geekdom, to produce this stellar piece of puppet animation.

Burton and co-director Mike Johnson flesh-and-bone their fable out. They set it in a stark, oppressive strip of Victorian Europe, the Land of the Living, and in a rocking mirror-image netherworld of walking, talking cadavers, the Land of the (Living) Dead.

The filmmakers' gleeful grotesquerie befits the turbulent, ardent, yet also inherently humorous subject. This is one young-love story that sees how ridiculous young love often is - and honors it, just the same. Danny Elfman's songs are uneven and the script, however brief, is far from seamless. The emotional unity and even better, the generosity of Burton's vision are what give this movie a kick akin to his live-action marvel Big Fish (2003).

Especially after Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I'd nearly despaired at the prospect of seeing or hearing Johnny Depp again as Burton's alter ego, the sensitive, artistic, arrested adolescent. Here he's Victor Van Dort, the pianist son of wealthy fishmongers (Tracey Ullman and Paul Whitehouse) who intend to marry him off to Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), the daughter of impoverished aristocrats (Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney).

This time, Depp doesn't over-do the otherworldliness, and his thin, artfully uncertain voice fits his willowy animated figure to a reed-like T. In Victoria he immediately recognizes that he has an ideal mate; they're even physically similar. But they're too much alike to fix things when they go wrong - as they do after Victor turns a wedding rehearsal into a shambles. When he wanders into a forest to replay the ceremony, he places the ring on a tree root that turns out to be a finger bone from the oddly beautiful Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter), who takes him underground with her.

Despite her ex-human state, the Corpse Bride proves as fervid and voluptuous as Victor and Victoria are withdrawn and airy. Burton keeps this topsy-turvy triangle spinning before righting it in just the perfect way; that's the real magic in this movie.

Of course, it's full of funny riffs in the live world, where a Town Crier keeps shouting Victor's failures out to the known universe, and in the world of the dead, where Bonejangles (Elfman) leads the Skeletones in nightly jam sessions at the Ball and Socket Pub. And there's one magical skeletal creation in Scraps, Victor's long-dead dog; the Corpse Bride returns him to her new spouse as bones in a gift box, which immediately reform into an X-ray image of a lovable, scrappy terrier.

More important, that gift bespeaks largeness of feeling, and Victor slowly but surely responds to it. Is it any accident that Bonham Carter, Burton's partner and the mother of his son, plays the Corpse - and does so with an ecstatic hopefulness? The movie sees both the attractions and impossibilities of opposites living together, the rightness and the dangers of likes marrying. One girl may get Victor, but Burton salutes the other with a gorgeous, moonlit send-off. He's the flukiest of filmmakers, and Corpse Bride ranks as one of his happiest flukes.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

TIM BURTON'S CORPSE BRIDE (Warner Bros.)

Starring the voices of Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Emily Watson. Directed by Mike Johnson and Tim Burton.

Rated PG.

Time 75 minutes.

Review B+

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