Watching Corpse Bride is like watching your dog come back from the grave. He still acts like your dog, but you can see through him and see that there’s not a whole lot there anymore. He might still look good (skeletons do look pretty sweet), but the guts and brains are all gone, leaving you with an empty shell. Corpse Bride is, more or less, like an empty shell of a movie; it looks very nice, but apart from its visuals, nothing keeps you watching.
The plot begins with a socially awkward man named Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp), preparing to marry a women whom he has never met. Being the social reject that he is, he becomes worried and tries to convince his parents that the marriage is a bad idea. They’re all for it, of course, and because arranged marriages have never, ever, gone wrong, we hop in our carriages and head to the young lady’s house. She is also socially awkward, or maybe it’s just repression from her parents. Regardless, Victoria (Emily Watson) is the woman he is to marry.
Because rehearsing the wedding beforehand is thought to be smart, especially when you have two people who suck at everything in their lives, we next cut to that. Christopher Lee voices the pastor, although he is far too underutilized on the whole. Victor can’t get his vows right, and soon enough has run off into the woods. He likes this girl after he meets her, so he decides that practicing his vows in the solitude that a forest brings would allow him to perform them perfectly once we come to the actual ceremony.
Little does he know that he’s not going to make it that far. After finishing his vows perfectly, he sticks the ring on what he believes to be a tree branch. It’s not. It turns out to be a corpse, who now becomes his bride because that’s the title of the movie, silly! Her name is Emily (Helena Bonham Carter), and because she now has the ring and accepted the vows which Victor thought he was saying to nobody, they are now married. I bet that would hold up in court. Thankfully, being dead isn’t that big of a deal in this film, as Emily is more lively and animated than Victor will ever be.
So, we follow these people in the underworld for a while. Up with the living, a new wedding idea is proposed and Victoria might have already found a new beau, but really our story revolves around Emily and Victor. Her love for him and his indifference for her. The complete lack of anything interesting in this film is astounding, really, given the basic set-up. But instead of actually doing something with this concept, directors Tim Burton and Mike Johnson just meander around, keeping us from becoming engaged with this material.
Songs are added to liven up Corpse Bride, but there are only about four of them. Even then, they felt too long, often repeating themselves and delaying the plot even more. I like musicals when things get done while the characters sing. In this one, side characters jump in and begin singing for no reason, halting our progress and making a short film (Corpse Bride only runs for 77 minutes) feel much longer than it is.
That’s not to say that the intermittent songs are the only problem. For almost the entire film, we continue to do the same thing over and over again. “I want to be married to you.” “I don’t.” “Too bad.” “Oh well.” On and on and on until what winds up being the final scene. And then the ending feels rushed, on top of that! It just ends without wrapping some of the subplots up. It doesn’t leave things ambiguous, really, it just decides to wrap up without tying up its loose ends.
I almost want to just spoil which “bride” Victor ends up with just so that you’ll avoid wasting your time with Corpse Bride. Will he choose the undead person whom he doesn’t like? Or will he find a way out of his current marriage to marry the one girl he “loves” despite spending maybe two hours with her at the most? I have a better question: Who cares? I know I certainly didn’t. The title is less than accurate; the only character that had any life was Emily.
Corpse Bride puts us in an awkward position of caring more about Emily than Victor, which is a grave mistake. We know exactly who we want to achieve happiness. It’s not Victor, and it’s not Victoria — it’s Emily. But despite that being the character whom we care about, the film wants to pull us into rooting for Victor and Victoria to wed. We want something completely different from what the film wants, and that’s not a fun situation for anyone to be in. I can only imagine watching this with the filmmakers.
But like I opened up with, this film does look good. Stop-motion animation almost always looks good. It takes so much time to put a project like this together that you might as well do it properly, at least in terms of the aesthetics. If all you want to do is look at some pretty good stop-motion animation for an hour, Corpse Bride will satisfy. Anything more, and you’re asking for too much.
Corpse Bride fails both in terms of narrative and characters. It doesn’t give us a story that’s interesting (despite a potentially fun premise), and its characters are weak and lifeless. It doesn’t end well either, with the finale feeling rushed despite the rest of the film seeming overlong. A hollow mess from start to finish, but it does look pretty enough to be worth watching — it just would have worked better as a 5-10 minute short rather than a full motion picture.