Last night we saw Corpse Bride at the Mann Village Theater in in Westwood. Before I talk about the movie, I want to say that this is one of my favorite theaters. Apart from the obvious features (it's an attractive building, and its spire is a Westwood landmark), it has only one screen, and the rear wall of the auditorium has many large doors that open onto the lobby. This unique floor plan, combined with the flatness of the seating (the front seats aren't much lower than the rear seats), means that you can see the screen from the lobby and snack bar. It makes the place feel unified - united by the giant screen - in a way that most theaters aren't. There are many other excellent LA theaters, but they aren't laid out in this way, and therefore don't have the same open, participatory feel. If you have a chance to go, I recommend it. Oh, and the THX sound is great.
Anyway, Corpse Bride. Overall I liked it. As you expect from a Tim Burton film, the visuals are gorgeous. I particularly liked the design of the eponymous Corpse Bride, Emily. She's a dizzying combination of attractiveness and repulsion. I very much like that the film embraces the uncomfortable details of death and decay and puts them in a context where they are not horrible but matter-of-fact. For example, Emily has a large hole rotted into her left cheek. If you look closely, you can see her upper row of teeth through the hole. It's as horrifying a detail as you could want, but in the context of the movie you're more interested in what she's saying (or singing). For a culture that I like to accuse of being in denial about death, this is pretty good stuff! Not as good as Six Feet Under, but... let's stay on topic.
Speaking of speaking and singing, the voice cast is uniformly excellent. Johnny Depp is great as Victor (I wouldn't have recognized him, actually), and Helena Bonham Carter does some rather lovely singing. The music is a mixed bag, however. Some of it (notably the solo and duet piano performances that form a key part of the story) is great. But the songs are mainly just workmanlike, and have the same problem as every Burton/Elfman musical collaboration - you can't understand the words! Perhaps it's just me, but I could barely understand a single line. I don't know if the music is overwrought, obscuring the vocals, or if the vocals are mixed too low, or what it is. But I can never understand the lyrics! So - in Corpse Bride, as in Nightmare Before Christmas or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - I just sat there, enjoying the visuals and the tunes, but mildly frustrated that I couldn't understand what the songs were saying beyond the occasional snatched phrase. I mean no disrespect to Danny Elfman (whose Simpsons theme is my favorite TV-theme of all time), but I never had this problem with, say, Gilbert and Sullivan.
I found the story to be a little too formulaic as well. I don't mind formula, but this was a little... er... bare bones. I won't reveal any plot details. Suffice to say that everything plays out exactly as you expect it too. Also disappointing are some elements that are introduced purely to serve a specific narrative function ( e.g., Victor's dog), and then largely ignored except for "visual gag" purposes. Nevertheless, the story does what it needs to do. It evokes genuine emotion, and overall is really sweet.
In the end, though, it's all about the visuals. The character design is truly ingenious. The world of the dead is alive with perhaps every possible way to animate a skeleton. There's hot jazz skeletons (given a meta-poignancy by New Orleans), cute-little-schoolchildren skeletons, and - certainly my favorite - wise old Elder Gutknecht. This wonderful creation - a kind of skeletal Albus Dumbledore - is the highlight of the movie. He's funny and lovable, but also - with his arthritic joints and painfully curved limb-bones - a sobering reminder of what
awaits us all.
In summary - a very worthy piece of work. It's great to see the tradition of stop-motion animation alive and well (with a new Wallace and Grommit on the way as well), and in many ways "Corpse Bride" is clearly a labor of love (the piano Victor plays is a "Harryhausen"). Definitely worth the price of admission!