Corpse Bride is not a great movie. It might not even be a good movie, especially when compared with its predecessor, The Nightmare Before Christmas. A lot of it is weak. The plot is contrived, nonsensical, or extremely obvious with its direction and theme; the setting, combined with Tim Burton’s traditional “style” of animation, feels cliché; the music is less catchy and memorable; and the characters are not very compelling, but rather caricatures. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a case of the writers coming up with the title before the concept.
Despite all that, it’s a guilty pleasure of mine that I break out every year around this time.
In a small, Victorian town, everything is muted, prim and proper. A family of newly-wealthy fishermen are set to marry their son, Victor, into an “old money” family that is deep in debt. Victor’s bride-to-be, Victoria, seems nice enough, but has been strictly repressed by her disapproving parents, who pop in and ruin what little bonding time she and Victor do get.
Victor, who is mousy, passive, and wide-eyed, gives every indication that he doesn’t want to be married. His nerves lead to disaster at the wedding rehearsal, and he leaves in disgrace, wandering into the woods to practice his vows and gestures. Just as it seems that he is accepting his fate and ready to step it up, he recites his vow in its entirety and slips his ring onto a “tree branch,” which actually turns out to be the skeletal hand of Emily, the Corpse Bride. She rises from the dead and drags an unwilling Victor to the Underworld with her, claiming that they are now married.
As you might have guessed, the afterlife is an absolute contrast to the Victorian world above. It is a colorful, fun place full of rowdy skeletons and blue zombies. It seems that death puts an end to caring about propriety and appearances, because everyone lets loose and does whatever they want, with the exception of going upstairs and tormenting the living. I’m not sure why, though. Who makes up these rules of theirs? God? What’s the price for transgression, and why are they then allowed to go “upstairs” later in the film?
The Bride, whose name is actually Emily, was murdered when she tried to elope with a handsome stranger, so she vowed to wait for someone to “ask for her hand” and “wait for her true love to come set her free”.
Meanwhile, up in the land of the living, Victoria tries to get help and rescue Victor, only to be re-engaged to a man named Lord Barkis, who just strolled into town claiming that he was distant family, visiting for the wedding. Coincidence?
So yes, you can see the “twists” coming from a mile away. Some questions of note, however, are: How did Emily come up with that contrived, unlikely plan of hers? How does she qualify true love, seeing as any Joe Schmoe could just waltz up and wake her up? Why does she seems surprised that the guy who was fleeing in terror from her might not want to be married to her, and furthermore, why take that so personally? You’re a corpse, lady! Your personality is not what he’s afraid of!
On a sillier note, what determines how the dead look when they arrive? Do the blue zombie people decompose into skeletons over time, or did the skeleton inhabitants all have their flesh flayed off of them before they died? Emily has skeletal bits in her design, so what horrible things does that imply about how and when she died?
There is so much more about this setup that doesn’t make sense, however. There is an annoying third-act misunderstanding, in which Victor stupidly thinks that Victoria is willingly marrying someone else…despite him barely explaining the circumstances of his disappearance to her. And the fact that he knows what both of their parents are like; domineering and greedy.
But this leads him to agree to “officially” marry Emily, which involves committing suicide so that they can be together in death. You see, although he was dragged into the Underworld, he is still technically alive, and most wedding vows assert that death is the only thing that will break the union.
So Victor and Emily were never married in the first place, because he was alive and she was dead. Her plan could have never worked in the long run. Does that mean she would have to go back into the ground under that old oak tree, waiting for take #2?
And Victor…well, to put it mildly, when faced with the idea that the girl he’s known for barely a day might have moved on, he concludes that there is nothing more he wants or needs out of life. He might as well just kill himself and tie himself to another girl he has known for barely a day, who he has repeatedly avoided being straightforward and honest with.
Truly, this is a love story for the ages.
As for the side characters, it’s hard to really remember their names. There’s a maggot doing a Peter Lorre impression; that reference is too old for people my age to get, but you probably remember seeing him parodied in Bugs Bunny shorts like Hair-Raising Hare. Victor’s parents are cockney, while Victoria’s are classically snooty. Everyone is pretty much distilled down to one or two character traits, usually designated by their visual design.
The corpses are not terribly graphic or hard to look at. Danny Elfman plays a skeleton (not Jack!) with one remaining eyeball. He gets the best song in the movie, and then later makes a sex joke and creepily chases a woman…so there’s that.
But all of that said, I still enjoy the movie. It’s clumsy and silly with virtually nothing new or interesting to say, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining.
I wish Emily was a bit smarter, less love-struck, and had more screen time, because she’s the only character who really stands out from everyone else. Unlike the rest of the dead, she seems like she would have been the same in life as she is in death; naïve, but passionate and free-spirited. If Victor had spent more time with her, I could see him falling in love with her genuinely, as almost an equal. Victoria, on the other hand, is basically a female clone of Victor with slightly less personality, and I could only see him bonding with her over their mutual misery, bemoaning their sad lot in life as breed-mule pawns in their families’ games.
So no, it’s not a great or intelligent film, but it captures the spirit and charm of Halloween pretty well without bludgeoning you with so much holiday marketing. It’s a brainless affair that sadly squanders what potential it had with a short run time; contrivances; and some unexplained rules and plot points.
*None of the clips, images, or audio used in this post belong to me except the title card.