This is what ‘Corpse Bride is really about:
The basic set-up (established in a musical number that comes across like Gilbert & Sullivan after a few G&Ts too many) has upper crust but penniless couple Finis and Maudeline Everglot (voiced by Albert Finney and Joanna Lumley) scheming to marry their winsome daughter Victoria (Emily Watson) off to Victor (Johnny Depp), the hapless son of nouveau riche parvenus William and Nell Van Dort (Paul Whitehouse and Tracey Ullman).
The names are just too priceless: Finis (as in “the end”) and Maudeline (maudlin) are the stuffed shirt aristocratic types drifting stoically towards their own personal financial Gotterdammerung, their stately home crumbling around them. Their nemeses/saviours are William (you can imagine he’s “Bill”, an archetypal working class diminutive, to his mates) and Nell (a name inevitably evocative of a nobleman’s consort). The romantic couple in waiting are called Victor and Victoria. The obvious filmic homage notwithstanding, both are reticent, gauche, clumsy and socially inept: there’s nothing victorious about either.
Victor, reeling under Pastor Galswells (Christopher Lee)’s admonition at being unable to memorize his wedding vows, takes a sheepish walk into the dark forest just on the outskirts of town and practices the lines and the giving of the ring. In the kind of innocent misunderstanding that could easily befall any young man, he finds himself betrothed to the titular Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter).
[Parenthetically, the following exchange, which took place at chez Agitation while watching the DVD last night, might be worth recording:
ME: Okay, so she’s dead, crawling with maggots and has a detachable arm, but the lass has a decent figure.
PAULA: Hmmm, I don’t know. Could do with some meat on her bones.
ME: High five.]
Hooked up with
‘Corpse Bride’ – released the same year as Burton’s overblown remake of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ – is a curious film. Clocking in at just an hour and a quarter, its slender plot nonetheless feels dragged out in places. There are only two real set-pieces: Victor’s half-delirious half-terrified waltz through the underworld (incorporating the marvelous title song in swing band style), and the wedding finale at which arch-villain Barkis Bittern (Richard E Grant) threatens the celebrations of both the living and the dead. (We were talking about character names earlier. Barkis Bittern. Geddit? Geddit?) It packs in a vocal cast of staggering quality – in addition to the above named, Michael Gough, Jane Horrocks and Enn Reitel lend their dulcet tones – some of whom only get a line or two. The songs probably account for over a third of the screen time. Visually, it’s kind of like the characters who didn’t make the cut for ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ decided to put on their own show and to hell with it.
It looks like it’s set in a woodcut illustration from a book of German fairy tales, yet comes on as a black valentine to Englishness. It puts up an English rose against a pretty freakin’ hot (and decidedly non-living) goth chick. (And you can’t get much more goth than actually being six feet under.) It doesn’t just laugh at the Reaper, but chortles along with him. It’s glib and sardonic and takes its leave of you with a scene that’s authentically and throat-tighteningly beautiful. Well played, Mr Burton, well played.