Dirs. Tim Burton and Mike Johnson
Film #23, of Tuesday 23rd October, for Halloween 31 For 31
I have not kept up with Tim Burton as a director, but he does fascinate me. Mars Attacks! (1996) and Ed Wood (1994) stood out very well, and while it was Henry Selick who deserves the credit for bringing The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) on screen, Tim Burton still created the story and the characters originally. As an animated film where a groom-to-be (Johnny Depp) unexpectedly becomes wed to an undead bride (Helena Bonham Carter), Corpse Bride promised a similar film like Selick’s, only with Burton in the directorial chair with Mike Johnson.
Going into Corpse Bride though there were the thoughts - as the first scenes of a gothic Victorian town are shown, and a quiet and shy protagonist played with quite a rich vocal intonation by Depp is introduced - of how Tim Burton has been viewed as becoming almost a parody of himself to other film viewers and critics. In Britain, one of the satirical comedy programmes on the BBC, which parodied celebrities, had a sketch of what Christmas would be like at the house of Burton and his real life wife Bonham Carter, Burton presenting Bonham Carter a Christmas tree covered entirely in black; it’s a cheap joke but one that sticks in the skull like a well time knife of a rouge. Part of this can be partially blamed on Burton himself, but baring in mind I have not catched up with his later films yet, it feels more the case that a legit auteur, who in following a basic trait of repeating his obsessions in each of his films, has unfortunately had his fascinations swallowed up into consumer product. This is a shame as the influences Burton and Corpse Bride show – German Expressionism. Hammer Horror (with Christopher Lee wonderfully voicing a priest), Universal and American Horror (including a Peter Lorre worm of all things) amongst others – are all distinct entities that exist beyond the weight of a mere plastic collectable of Frankenstein or Dr. Caligari in a comic book store. Either of those figures would be great, and I would gladly have either on my shelf; the problem lies more when the ideas behind them are ignored and they are merely seen as empty pop trivia images and memes. Sadly Tim Burton’s individualist style has been devoured by shop store Goth and emo culture.
Corpse Bride is immensely flawed. It has it humour and the entire cast is game and doing their best, but with its premise, which involves the protagonist’s original wife-to-be (Emily Watson), the ending to wrap up the tale is obvious. This is signposted further by Richard E. Grant sliming it up as Lord Barkis Bittern, the obvious villain of the piece. That does not mean the film has little of interest though. Visually, or artistically as a world created entirely from imagination, it is spectacular to see, avoiding becoming cliché by its populous of imaginately shaped characters, sharing similarities to Aardman Animations’ work, enhanced by its large British cast, and bizarrely in its more bulbous characters to the illustrator Ralph Steadman, most well known for his illustrations for Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The cast as it is helps flesh these creations out as well in their idiosyncratic voices and vocalisms to match the varying body designs. The film is very macabre visually too, including material that, if it wasn’t depicted in such a cartoonish way, would be incredibly morbid. Involving the dead, including a large cast of skeletons and rotting corpses including the Corpse Bride, the filmmakers are allowed to bring a ghoulish sensibility without coming off as pointlessly gross, as with the case of the Corpse Bride which manages to convey the utterly beautiful with decay very unexpected in most cinema let alone PG rated animation. This sense of fascination, with liberal doses of black humour and enjoyable creepiness, is prevalent in Burton’s work, only to be pushed any further by Henry Selick in The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Like Selick’s film, Corpse Bride also has songs and musical number as well, suggesting that along with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), that Burton is just as obsessed with musical theatre as with horror stories. The songs don’t completely work, but there are choice moments where it all gels together. Another aspect that Burton has been lambasted about, along with continually casting Johnny Depp in his films, is the repetition of using Danny Elfman to compose his films’ music. Again, this is a key part of traditional auteurism, continuing new films with the same collaborators, thus creating an expanding single entity through multiple films that goes against human nature of being bored with repetition. If Burton was to start producing less and less quality films in this frame of scope, which I still need to figure out for myself, than this would be a significant problem, but Corpse Bride avoids this partially. The music, excluding the few unsuccessful compositions that try to make ordinary conversations into lyrics, is very good, the standout involving Danny Elfman himself, as a character Bonejangles, as the lead vocalist; with its swing-like mood, it reminds you that before he was a film composer Elfman was once part of a band called Oingo Boingo and that, with his brother Richard Elfman, he helped create the cult film Forbidden Zone (1982), an un-PC, delirious tribute to early 20th century music and show theatre though bright eyed madness. The irony is that, considering Corpse Bride’s humour and tone, you can see shades of Forbidden Zone in this family friendly film which, combined with the influences of Tim Burton, adds a potentially gleeful subversion to it all.
It is a shame that however this subversion is damped by the narrative of the film, based on folklore but smoothed down too far, obvious in what will happen without a great deal of magic or life to it. Around this problem however is a cinematic world which entices me to return back to Tim Burton’s films. His directorial obsessions are in danger of becoming a parody of itself, but every director who develops a singular cinematic personality is in risk of doing this, and it does not take away the fact that his obsession with the underachiever, the looked down upon, the monsters and the undead brides, is full of tenderness while he still revels in a severed arm joke or two. If emo hipsterism does actually exist, it sadly will distort his vision out of context, but it will be blamed on the culture around such a director’s work that pulls it out of its emotional context into hollow images of black clad ghouls. Unless Burton’s later films fall into clichés and laziness, if I get around to them, it will remain this way to interpret the issue. The final answer will be to see the films, from Dark Shadows (2012) and Frankenweenie (2012) to the earliest ones like Beetlejuice (1988), and contrast them, seeing if my theory is solid or if Burton is exactly like that parody on a BBC program, at home at Christmas with Helen Bonham Carter, presenting to her the most pathetically tiny, black covered Christmas tree and discussing how it fits how he views the season in an inane manner. Corpse Bride borders in the middle, but still suggests the promise that Burton is far more interesting than merely making everything black and grim looking.