Sunday, September 25, 2005

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

So, the second time in three months, Tim Burton has a new film out. Even though I loved Nightmare Before Christmas, I wasn't that anxious to see Tim go back to stop motion animation. With a few exceptions (Nightmare, Cowboy Bebop) I'm not usually that big a fan of animation. Even though I'm all about the visual aspect of filmmaking, I really do enjoy seeing the work of real actors and it's alchemy of director, script and actor that makes a film great. Animators, for all their technical skill can't match the performance skill of a great actor. Only in Cowboy Bebop have I seen really subtle acting from an animated character, and that's largely because of the time the creators could take to develop their characters.

But regardless, it's a new Tim Burton film and that alone is reason for excitement. However, I wasn't too into this one before its release, and actually seeing the film hasn't made me like it that much more. This is Tim Burton's weakest film since Planet of the Apes, and while it fails to succeed for vastly different reasons, it too lacks the magic that makes the best Burton films feel incredibly wacky and unhinged, filled with innocent emotion.

Where Corpse Bride does succeed is visually, the stop motion is gorgeous, even if the characters bare an unfortunate resemblence to those in the Puffs tissue commercials. They move thoroughly realistically, and the way they make Victoria's hair wet, among other little touches, is great.

However, the film really suffers from feeling like a retread of Nightmare Before Christmas. Admittedly, that's a film that's been built up from good film to legend status in the twelve years since its release, to the point where I'm now in love with every aspect of the film and fully accept the songs and characters. So, this film suffers from Phantom Menace syndrome, where I can't forgive this film's negatives, even as I gloss over the bad parts of Nightmare.

But, the film does so many things that are precisely reminiscent of Nightmare that you can't help but compare. For example, one of the great bits of Nightmare is the 'Making Christmas' montage, where we see a bunch of characters from Halloweentown singing about how they're making a grotesque version of Christmas. Here we get the residents of the land of the dead singing about their grotesque version of a wedding. The jokes are virtually the same and the song has the same structure, only without the great driving melody.

The songs in Nightmare are what really makes it great, and the music here barely qualifies as songs. There's no chorus or variation, the songs are like those gap bridging speak-songs in operettas, where plot information has to be conveyed to get us to the next emotional song, except here there are no emotional songs, the weak songs lead nowhere. Other than the Cab Calloway style land of the dead piece, there's no good music, and even that song is a weaker version Oogie Boogie's song in Nightmare. After Elfman's phenomenal songs in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I was expecting something really exciting here, but instead we get stuff that's just weak and unmemorable.

The jokey land of the dead characters are like the rejects from Halloweentown, and a lot of the gags tread the same ground, just they're not as funny here. Maybe it's targetted at kids, but Nightmare worked for all ages, and this film should be held to the same standards.

Where the film does work is in the relationship between Victor and Victoria. I really did want them to get together, even as I was also sympathetic to the plight of the Corpse Bride. Johnny Depp and Emily Watson were great together, and I'd love to see Emily Watson appear in Burton's next live action project. She has a great doll-like look that would really fit into Burton's world. And even though he's treaded this ground many times before, the idea of two innocent people crossing the boundaries of a corrupt society is always great stuff for Burton.

But, even as the core works, there's too much time spent on humor that doesn't hit, and broadly drawn characters with no depth. This is one of only two Burton films that I would consider a failure. The whole point of it is to spotlight stop motion animation, but the stop motion has become so good, so perfect, that it doesn't have the eccentric charm that made stop motion unique, the knowledge that it was fake, but that very knowledge made it all the more entertaining. The joy of the Harryhausen skeletons isn't in the fact that these look like real skeletons moving, it's in seeing something that looks kind of real, but not quite, moving in an impossible way. Nightmare captured this, but the clean look of Corpse Bride makes it look more like a CG film than traditional stop motion.

So, Tim needs to drop a great new live action project soon, because it's been a long time since he's made a great movie. Hell, none of his four most recent films were even as good as Mars Attacks! I want to see him get back to something a bit messier and nastier, not filled with special effects or schmaltz, just the raw angry emotion of Edward Scissorhands or Batman Returns, or the genuinely odd humor of Beetlejuice. Lately, Burton feels like someone copying his style rather than the genuine article.

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