Tim Burton's gorgeous nightmares.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Sept. 16 2005 2:43 PM

Death Becomes Him

Tim Burton's gorgeous nightmares, plus penguin love.

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Touching, if creepy

Tim Burton's fetishes are entertainingly consistent. He's just gaga for ghoul chicks. He's probably scared of being consumed by them, too—which must only make them more desirable. He used to photograph his spooky Addams Family ex-girlfriend Lisa Marie (she played Vampira in Ed Wood) covered in spider webs, and he likes to work amid skeletal Day of the Dead figurines. Is there anyone who keeps alive—even cultivates—his adolescent morbidity the way Burton does?

Now he's with another scary dark woman, Helena Bonham Carter (the ghoul of his dreams in Fight Club, I'll bet), and has made her a wedding present of the title vocal part in the stop-motion-animated semi-operetta Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (Warner Bros.).

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The movie is so Burtonesque that it verges on self-parody—but it's fun and stunningly beautiful anyway. The co-director is Mike Johnson, who's probably responsible (along with cinematographer Peter Kozachik, designer Alex McDowell, editors Jonathan Lucas and Chris Lebenzon, and an army of stop-motion animators) for how limpid it feels, the smooth camera bringing out everything in those Grand Guignol/Gothic sets and characters.

You get ravens, forests like boneyards, and lair upon sarcophagal lair. The characters are elongated figures with their ping-pong-ball eyes, along with the festering living dead who were so gruesomely endearing in Burton's Beetlejuice. You can tell the villains here because they have grotesque chins, while the hero, heroine, and plaintive corpse bride have little ones upstaged by their huge eyes. What's with the chin thing?

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride is a fairy tale about a snooty, aristocratic family marrying off its sweet but mousy daughter (voiced by Emily Watson) to the bumbling son (Johnny Depp) of a nouveau riche couple. Depp is delightful—and even more delightful is the manner in which the animators have captured the gung-ho way that he throws himself into a role. You can see him in this character.

The Corpse Bride, murdered by her fiancé on the brink of their elopement, rises from the ground when the young man practices his wedding vows on a dead tree—whereupon he finds himself betrothed to her. She's a lovely corpse with pursed, pink, kissable lips, but there is that maggot with the voice of Peter Lorre in her eye socket and the hole in her cheek that exposes her upper molars. Anyway, she's dead, and the hero loves a live one.

The film is a mite poky even at its 75 minutes, but that might be a comment on the video-game pacing of so much modern animation. The Corpse Bride unfolds more like a light opera. Danny Elfman's songs recall Gilbert and Sullivan, (Mr. Oompah) Lionel Bart, and even Kurt Weill, while the score is his own "Danse Macabre." I'd like to hear the music a few more times: It's lush and hammy, and magnificently orchestrated, but maybe a tad short on good tunes.

The voices are a joy, especially Joanna Lumley as the ogreish aristocrat matriarch, Richard E. Grant as a scheming fortune hunter, and hoary Christopher Lee—booming and rolling his r's as the irritable local pastor. The final image is maybe the most gorgeous and lyrical I've seen in an American animated film. Will the kiddies go for it? I'm not sure, but the Burtonish adolescents will. The movie asks: "Can the living marry the dead?" If they could, Burton would be deep underground with all the dancing skeletons.

It has been amusing to watch the radical right/anti-evolution/family-values crowd laud the subjects of March of the Penguins for their commitment to their mates and as evidence of intelligent design. If anything, the film seemed to me to reinforce what we know of natural selection. Darwin would have thrilled to it. These strange, complex, grueling rituals of penguin mating and procreation in the Antarctic have obviously evolved to keep this flock alive in "the harshest place on Earth."

In one (upsetting) scene, the adult penguins do nothing as a group of young'uns is attacked by a predator. One succumbs. Family values? The only way you can account for this chilling indifference is the heartlessness of evolution: You give them one—the one that can't get away—and the hawks leave the rest alone for the time being. Monogamy? The narration makes the point that they are serially monogamous: They change partners after each breeding cycle. Some penguins, we have recently learned, are queer—and this with no exposure to our debased Hollywood-liberal culture.

These people really are deluded, aren't they? They'll twist anything to suit their ends and then count on an audience that doesn't think critically—an audience that I should think is far easier to manipulate than penguins... 11:42 p.m. PT

Update: Please, folks… No more e-mails accusing me of being "anti-Christian." As it happpens, some of the right-wing moralists in question are Jewish. The issue isn't their faith but their agenda, their disingenuousness, and the blind credulousness of their audience.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Corpse Bride died of heartbreak. She was, in fact, murdered. Also: Numerous readers have written to point out the story is based on an old Jewish folk tale. Noted.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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