Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride is set in 19th century Europe, and, indeed, story creators Burton, John August, Pamela Pettler and Caroline Thompson drew from Russian Jewish folk tales of that period to come up with their story of Victor, a young (and implicitly Jewish) man who is betrothed to Victoria, the daughter of impoverished aristocrats. Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp) is the shy but cultivated son of wealthy, socially striving fishmongers called the Van Dorts. On the eve of his arranged wedding with Victoria (Emily Watson), however, Victor takes a melancholy walk in the woods and accidentally proposes to a rotting young female corpse (Helena Bonham Carter) who has decayed in her bridal gown ever since being jilted by a caddish lover many years before.
Despite her deteriorating flesh and the tendency of her eyeball to pop out at the behest of her resident maggot/confidante, the Corpse Bride is still a looker (her Jolie-esque bosom has been spared the ravages of decomposition) and a gothic charmer to boot. While the world of the living is rendered in a beautiful, silvery black and white, the Corpse’s underworld home is alive with color and joyous music. Victor overcomes his revulsion to realize that in the land of the dead, there is true equality of souls and none of the pinched snobbery of the living world.
Danny Elfman’s songs are generally infectious and the stop-motion animation of the various subterranean bone machines is inventive and joyous. However, it’s disappointing that the film’s creators couldn’t find an ending that honors the spirit of the movie and of its surely unsettling source material. In this otherwise clear-eyed depiction of this world and the next, no one we love ever has to die. The film asks, “Can a heart break after it stops beating?” The answer seems to be, alas, no.
Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride opens Friday at Triangle theatres.