The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

Written by James MacDowell.

Photo from the article Quite how Tim Burton became the major Hollywood director he is is still rather baffling to me. This isn’t just because his dense, hermetic, obsessive worlds are darker than those one usually expects to find in the Dream Factory’s output, but also because he has never really been that good a storyteller. This isn’t to say that he hasn’t told some wonderful stories - Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Ed Wood (1994) in particular are surely his artistic highpoints - but the pleasures one takes from a Burton film are usually much more visual than they are narrative-based. Like his one notable non-cinematic artistic achievement, the collected poems The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories, his films often feel less like stories than a collection of well-loved themes, characters and - most importantly - images. He himself has claimed, rather worryingly, that he cannot tell a good script from a bad one.

It could seem like something of a fatal attraction then that Burton feels for the fairytale - that most simple, but most pure, of story forms. I would suggest, however, that it is not the stories, but rather only the often warped people and allegories which make up fairytales that particularly appeal to his sensibility. Perhaps more than this though, what feels most important to him is - rather than the specifics of any particular tale - instead merely the broad idea of what a fairytale represents to us in the real world: that is, escape. An escape from mundane reality and - that most hated concept in Burton’s worlds - ‘normalcy’ is what comes across most strongly in Burton’s takes on the fairytale form.

The most obvious examples of this are Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish (2003). In Edward, an outlandish outsider - who seems to have stumbled straight out of the pages of a piece of children’s fiction - wins the love of a beautiful girl by rescuing her momentarily from her constrictive suburban world and life. In Big Fish an estranged father and son find a shared common ground in a world of imagined fairytale-like stories. The link is that both these films explore what happens when the world of fairytales clashes with the ‘real world’: the first in the bigoted townspeople’s reactions to poor Edward, the second in the familial rifts caused by the father’s storytelling.

In fact Big fish could be said to be most blatant encapsulation of the governing theme behind much of Burton’s work: the tension between the world of imagination or stories and the real world. Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) both feature self-made, stranger-than-life, characters in conflict with reality/normalcy; Ed Wood is about the battle of a dreamer to keep telling his beautifully ridiculous stories with his circle of wilfully caricatured friends; Sleeply Hollow (1999) tells the story of a local mythical creature clashing with a down-to-earth man of science. When it comes to the fairytale then, it is the old romantic notion of escape-through-fantasy that it offers which seems to most attract Burton.

Maybe what this is really all about is simply the artist’s love for art itself. What is a fairytale if not the most extreme form of fiction, the furthest away from reality one can go? Perhaps all this love of fantasy is merely a representation of the director’s love of, and need for, escape through cinematic and artistic expression.

In Corpse Bride the dull ‘real world’ denies Depp and his intended wife the pleasure they get from playing piano - indeed it is this artistic expression which forms the first and only real basis for attraction between the two. The exciting, colourful, escapist underworld world Depp is whisked off to by his corpse bride, on the other hand, is introduced by a wild fantasy musical sequence far more vivid and lively than the rather dull song that segued us into the real world. Reminiscent of the over-the-top songs in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the wonderfully silly calypso that closes Beetlejuice (1988), the songs acts as an acknowledgement that the cinematic freaks and the dead have more fun - and more artistry - than the lifeless ‘normal’, ‘real’ living people.

For any lover of the power of cinematic fantasy, this gleeful philosophy of Burton’s is a highly seductive one - it taps into, and celebrates, one of the main guilty reasons we so enjoy films. It is very disappointing then that Corpse Bride sees Burton finally siding - perhaps for the first time - not with the freakish fantasy fairytale but with boring normalcy. At the end of the film, the corpse bride - who has fallen in love with Depp - steps aside in order that Depp might marry the lovely-but-dull, alive, ‘normal’ girl to whom he was intended.

It just feels so wrong for this entirely unextraordinary couple to be granted a romantic comedy-style happy ending while the typically Burtonesque weirdo is relegated to the role of the expendable third-wheel. The real kick in the teeth is that she’s happy to fill this role: this isn’t a tragic doomed-romance in the style of Edward Scissorhands - Depp isn’t in love with her, but with the boring girl he has spent barely five minutes with. Now this isn’t to say that the ending doesn’t make complete narrative sense (this is an old folk tale, after all), and it’s also not say that Burton’s obvious bias toward the fun-loving, more-interesting dead isn’t still absolutely in evidence. The climax of the film leaves the grey happy couple (who are about to be wed) in the church, following instead the Corpse Bride so that we can watch her (somewhat inexplicably but beautifully) burst into butterflies outside. Burton doesn’t care about his ‘normal’ protagonists enough to show us the marriage they have been striving for the entire film, and is more concerned with the (again) visually colourful and exciting final moments of the Bride’s life.

In which case, why not grant the fantasy character with whom his sympathies so clearly lie the ending she (and we) so wished for? It serves as the disappointing capper to a film that has felt simultaneously like unadulterated Burton and a curiously insincere and impersonal exercise.

This Alternate Take was published on November 08, 2005.

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