according to plan, albert finney, animated, animated feature, animated movie, animated movie review, animated musical, animation, animators, barkis bittern, black widow spider, bonejangles, bride, christopher lee, claymation, corpse bride, corpses, danny elfman, dead, elder gutknecht, emile, emily, emily watson, finis everglot, folk tale, folk tales, folktale, helena bonham carter, jane horrocks, johnny depp, Laika, land of the dead, land of the living, maggot, marry, maudeline everglot, michael gough, mrs. plum, nell van dort, Non-Disney, pastor galswells, paul the head waiter, remains of the day, richard e grant, scraps, skeleton, skeletons, stop motion animation, stop-motion, tears to shed, the wedding song, tim burton, tracy ullman, undead, van dort, victor, victor van dort, victoria, victoria everglot, william van dort
A long time ago in Russia, a young Jewish man was on his way to his wedding accompanied by his friends. As they passed by an old tree in the woods, the groom noticed to his amusement a stick poking from the ground that resembled a bony finger clawing its way out of the earth. In jest, the groom placed his wedding ring on the stick and recited his vows to his “wife”, performing the wedding ritual and making his companions roar with laughter. Little did he know that he made a grave error indeed.
The ground began to shake beneath them. A enormous hole opened up, out of it where the stick once lay rose a horrifying corpse! She was little more than a skeleton wrapped in bits of skin and a rotting wedding dress with a spider’s web for a veil. The bride had been murdered on her way to her own wedding years before by anti-Semitic Cossacks. Now that the groom had made his vows to her, she claimed him as her own.
In terror and desperation, the groom and his friends fled to the rabbi for help. Surely the wisest and most learned holy man in the village would know what to do. The groom presented his dilemma (as a hypothetical question, of course), but as the rabbi pondered it, the doors of the synagogue burst open, and there before them stood the corpse bride. Once again she laid claim to the young groom, this time with the whole village – and the groom’s living bride – there to witness it. With the situation blown wide open, the rabbi gathered other rabbis from the surrounding villages to consult with them. The village waited anxiously for their outcome, the groom’s living bride most of all. Finally, the rabbi presented his answer:
“It is true, you have put the ring on the finger of the corpse bride and recited your vows, which constitutes a proper wedding – however, the vows state that you must seek a life together hallowed by faith. Since the bride is already deceased, she has no claim upon the living.”
The groom and his living bride were relieved. The poor corpse bride, on the other hand, wailed and collapsed to the ground in tears. “My last chance at a happy life, gone! My dreams of love and family will never be fulfilled, every thing is lost forever now.” She was a pitiable sight, a heap of bones in a ragged wedding dress sobbing on the floor – yet who should show her compassion but the living bride herself? The young woman knelt and gathered up the corpse bride, holding and comforting her like a mother would a crying child.
“Don’t worry,” she murmured in her ear, “I will live your dreams for you. I will have children in your name, enough for the two of us, and you can rest knowing our children and children’s children will be taken care of and never forget you.” The living bride tenderly carried the corpse bride to the river and dug a grave for her, decorating it with stones and wildflowers, and laid her in there herself. At last, the corpse bride knew peace, and she closed her eyes. The living bride and her groom were married, and she kept her promise to the corpse bride: she had many children, and those children had children, and they always told the story of the corpse bride and the kindness she was shown so she’d never be forgotten.
This is a semi-abridged version of an old Jewish folktale that would have remained in obscurity if it hadn’t reached the late Joe Ranft, storyboard artist for Pixar and a little movie called The Nightmare Before Christmas. He passed it on to his good buddy Tim Burton and big surprise, this rather macabre love story clicked with him. Corpse Bride debuted in 2005, the same year as Burton’s Willy Wonka remake, and it’s safe to say that this my preferred film between the two. Obviously, comparisons between this and the previous Tim Burton stop-motion musical (which he did NOT actually direct, see the opening of my Coraline review) will be inevitable, but Corpse Bride is a fine companion piece to Nightmare in nearly every way.
…Then I watched The Princess and the Scrivener’s video on the film (do check out their channel by the way) where they raised a highly pertinent question. If you’ve seen the movie already, I’m sure you’ve noticed one major difference between this and the story it’s based on:
So because Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride changes the setting of this Russian-Jewish folktale to England and made the characters Christian (as well as taking Burton’s own dodgy history when it comes to diverse casting into account), does that make it guilty of Jewish erasure?
Look, events this past year have made me re-evaluate many of my views and privileges as a white person. I want to be as woke and supportive of as many marginalized voices as possible, and that includes reassessing media I previously assumed was harmless or at least fair for its day. I truly want to see more Jewish characters and stories in mainstream entertainment that aren’t overused stereotypes or victims (the only Jewish movies I can think of that don’t involve the atrocities of World War 2 are Fiddler On The Roof and Yentl). After seeing Scrivener’s video, I sometimes wonder how much more we could have gotten if they kept the film more grounded in its Semitic roots. In fact, wouldn’t there be far more tension and a greater commentary on marrying outside of race, class and religion if they kept Victoria Christian but made Victor Jewish? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a thoughtful, questioning rabbi to counter Pastor Gallswell’s narrow-minded austerity?
That being said, however, I still don’t have much of a problem with the changes made in Corpse Bride. Folktales are meant to be retold with changes naturally evolving through the centuries. Sometimes the true strength in a story lies in how it well it can be told through different ethnic lenses. HBO’s animated series Happily Ever After is excellent in this regard, giving us creative cultural retellings of familiar stories ranging from an Inuit Snow Queen to a Rastafarian Rumpelstiltskin. The fact that so much of the grimness and heart of the original tale remains after its conversion to Christianity is a testament to how well they managed to pull this adaptation off.
In a small and incredibly dull English village (no, seriously, the Kansas scenes in The Wizard of Oz would be telling this place to liven up) a wedding is about to take place between the aristocratic Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson) and Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp), son of wealthy fish merchants. I had a mini-speech prepared for the day I’d eventually review something with Johnny Depp that amounted to “his acting is good but screw his wife-beating ass”. Then it was revealed that Amber Heard was the one doing the abusing, so hooray, no soapboxing today. While I too have my limits when it comes to Depp’s weirdo shtick, I’ve always liked him as an actor. Something that sets Victor apart from the likes of Jack Sparrow is that he’s very much the straight man here, reacting to the oddities around him with wide-eyed timidity. Despite his social awkwardness and tendency to stick his foot in his mouth at the worst times, there’s a warmth and quiet tenacity to Victor that makes him a likable lead, which is also due in no small part to Depp’s excellent vocal performance. Plus I do love watching a character grow from a shy and repressed young man to a more confident and open person.
After we’re introduced to Victor, we get our first song. Now you might be asking, are the tunes in Corpse Bride as good as the ones from The Nightmare Before Christmas? Well, with one exception, no, but that’s a tough order to fill considering Nightmare is one of the greatest musicals of all time. The songs still do the job of most musical numbers in moving the story along and exploring characters’ innermost thoughts. “According To Plan” neatly establishes the plot and the two families’ motivations for the wedding right off the bat: The Van Dorts (Tracy Ullman and Paul Whitehouse) see their son’s marriage as their ticket to high-society and couldn’t be more thrilled. The same can’t be said for the Everglots, however.
Lord Finis and Lady Maudeline (Albert Finney and Joanna Lumley) are only going through with the arrangement because they are in fact destitute (a fact they hope to keep secret long after the rings are exchanged). The one thing they have in common with their “common” counterparts is that they have a very low opinion of their own children. Victoria is very much like Victor in that she is sweet, caring, far less materialistic than her own mother and father and reasonably attractive, but they snidely refer to her as having “the face of an otter in disgrace”.
It goes without saying that these wretched people are using their children for upward social and financial mobility, regardless of their feelings: When Victoria expresses concern that she and Victor may not like each other, her mother retorts that love has never had anything to do with marriage, citing her own as an example; Nell Van Dort responds to her own son’s anxieties over never having met Victoria beforehand with “At least we have that in our favor!” Even the Van Dorts’ profession ties into their callous avarice: a once-common term for fish merchants was fishmonger, which also doubled as slang for pimp. The Van Dorts are essentially pimping out their son, and the Everglots are doing the same with their daughter even as they hypocritically look down their noses at the Van Dorts.
The Van Dorts arrive at the Everglots’ mansion for the wedding rehearsal. Both sets of parents abandon Victor to take tea and undergo civil niceties in the parlor. Left alone with nothing but a grand piano, Victor gives into his urge to play. His music draws Victoria from her room and she startles him into a meet-cute.
Now, in this rare moment of no familial or societal pressure, our lovers have the chance to know whom they will soon be bound to firsthand. It’s a vital point of connection that sets Victor and Victoria up as genuine viable partners for each other. Among other people, Victor is a jittery klutz, but in private he’s a graceful artist capable of expressing himself beautifully (not just musically, the film begins with him drawing a detailed rendering of a live butterfly). And then there’s Victoria, who’s the first person to say a kind word to Victor by complimenting his talent. She laments her own lack of skills: “Mother won’t let me near the piano; ‘Music is improper for a young lady. Too passionate,’ she says.”
While I once viewed this statement as proof of a lack of spine and interesting character traits on Victoria’s part, I now find it combined with what follows a fascinating glimpse into who she really is. First she refuses to call for a chaperone (for those who might be confused by this, social distancing rules in the 1880’s applied only to couples and required a dowdy old chaperone breathing down their necks so they wouldn’t burst into spontaneous lovemaking). Whatever happens next, Victoria wants to get to know Victor on her terms, not what society dictates, even insisting that he address her by her name and not her title. Then, she sits at the piano – which she just revealed she was barred from – and lightly strokes the keys. All in all, a subtle act of defiance revealing she longs to break free of her family’s confine. Add to the fact that she’s doing this in front of her husband-to-be as she’s confiding her childhood fantasies of romance to him and we get a sense that she’s gleaning whether or not he’d try to control her as well or if he’s someone she could share a life with. Despite Victor’s initial stammering, he validates her feelings, and in turn she makes a “gift” of some flowers he accidentally knocks over, changing his act of clumsiness into a sweet gesture.
But just as the walls are really coming down, Maudeline shows up to scold the couple for being within two feet of each other and orders them to come to the rehearsal immediately. The ceremony is overseen by the imposing Pastor Galswells (voiced by the equally imposing Christopher Lee) who…looks very familiar…
Oh, and the similarities to Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town don’t stop there. Guess who they pattern the exposition-spouting town crier after?
Hey, if The Nightmare Before Christmas took inspiration from the Rankin-Bass special that is near-universally loved, I’m okay with Corpse Bride borrowing from the one that I like better.
The ritual is supposed to be a simple one – Victor leads Victoria to the altar, pours her wine and lights a candle to symbolically provide for her and gives her the ring all while saying a few words (it’s says something that Victoria isn’t given anything to do, which cements how the families and the patriarchal church view her as something to be passed off to someone else) – yet Victor’s nerves and various ensuing mishaps make it a parade of disasters. Victoria is endearingly patient and understanding throughout the ordeal; the two families and Galswells less so. Not helping Victor’s image is the early arrival of one of the wedding guests, the comparatively more dignified Lord Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant).
Barkis is smug, condescending, chauvinistic, and opportunistic…but dammit, I just can’t hate him because of who plays him! I really like Grant, and not just because he’s a good actor that I happen share a birthday with. He uncovered a $98 million scam for a fake AIDS cure, he’s the only thing in Spice World worth watching, he did an audiobook on the many variations of the word fuck for fuck’s sakes! The man’s a legend!
After Victor sets Maudeline’s dress on fire (long story), Pastor Galswells banishes him from the house until he can properly say his vows. The poor fellow skedaddles to the woods under the disapproving gaze of his parents and in-laws. Night falls and Victor is still wandering aimlessly trying and failing to memorize his lines.
Spurred on by the thought of Victoria, Victor scrounges up some determination and finally starts getting it right. His confidence grows as he acts out each part until he finishes off by placing his ring on a root resembling an outstretched hand. And we all know what happens next:
There’s a lot I could say about our titular bride (or Emily, as we later learn): how I love her spectacular horrific entrance, how her design walks the line between beautiful and eerie with just enough differentiating her so she’s not a clone of Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas, how much she resembles Helena Bonham Carter despite the fact she was originally cast as Victoria when production started, but I think I’d like to focus on how much of a perfect foil she is for Victor. In contrast to Victor’s uptight nature, Emily’s well, a blithe spirit. She’s unencumbered with the expectations society, her upbringing and the living world once thrust upon on her and acts more passionately and free than Victoria is allowed to. She’s kind yet naive and prone to emotional outbursts, giving the impression that she died fairly young. Her emotional immaturity and inclination towards romantic ideals makes her delightfully oblivious to Victor’s discomfort most of the time, as opposed to his constantly bending over backwards to please everyone. In addition to complimenting each other’s personalities, they also share a few common interests like the piano. Perhaps in different circumstances, they could have made a good couple. It’s no big shock that most fans prefer shipping them over Victor and Victoria especially since more time is given towards them and their relationship development over Victoria’s.
Emily also has the uncanny ability to track Victor wherever he goes, no doubt a supernatural bonus that comes with her undead status. She pursues a terrified Victor in a nightmarish chase through the woods. Just as it seems Victor’s finally eluded her, she corners him on the bridge back to town and spirits him away to the Land of the Dead.
If I may, I’d like to take a moment how phenomenal this take on this movie’s take on the afterlife is. It reminds me of Beetlejuice in how the muted colors of the living world serve only to make the reveal of the overly-saturated Land of the Dead pop out all the more. Of course, this all plays into Tim Burton’s favorite method of turning assumptions of normalcy on their head: creating contradictions. The emotionless citizens of the living realm move mechanically, as if they were trapped in a clockwork town. Their slavish devotion to routine and societal norms makes them more dead than alive. The people who are actually dead, on the other hand, are brighter, happier and freewheeling, living (un-living?) their existence to the fullest. They’ve already experienced death, so there’s nothing left to fear. Class, riches, race, religion? None of that matters when you’re buried. Appropriately, the place where Victor wakes up is a pub where folks from all walks of life gather to have a good time, exemplified by a Napoleon-esque French general (Deep Roy) and an English general – two soldiers from opposite sides – happily drinking together.
Even the character designs play into this rejection of normalcy and how we view death. I know it sounds weird, but I always found the look of skeletons with eyes in their sockets creepier than ones that don’t, and yet the ones who do have an eye to spare in this movie look positively charming. These corpses are the right amount of funny, unsettling and imaginative. You can tell who they were in life – and how they died – just by looking at them. This is deliberate: the majority of the living characters are designed to be overly grotesque in order to make the leads and the deceased cast more endearing.
Victor is disturbed by his sudden change in setting and demands answers. He gets them in the form of the best song in the picture.
Going back to what I said earlier, I think the music of Corpse Bride is just fine; Danny Elfman’s score is pretty, the songs are all right, but “Remains of the Day” is a Banger with a capital B. It abandons the classical dirge we’ve endured for the past fifteen minutes for a jazz riot mixed with blues and a touch of Broadway. The real draw, though, is Danny Elfman stepping back into the role he was always meant to play: a singing skeleton with a flair for the dramatic. As “Bonejangles”, he scats the story of our jubiliciously lovely corpse bride with a gravelly voice that sounds virtually nothing like Jack Skellington, bookending each verse with an upbeat reminder that death is inevitable but it happens to everyone so you might as well enjoy the ride while it lasts.
The visuals also step up to the task of matching the frenetic music, most notably during the insanely awesome bridge. Skeletons dance around playing instruments made of themselves and chasing each other in a black void lit by changing neon lights, making it a better Pink Elephants sequence than the one Tim Burton would go on to produce.
And what of our bride’s tragic tale? Well, she was a beauty born into a wealthy family who fell for an impoverished stranger against her father’s wishes.
The two made plans to elope; she slipped on her mother’s wedding dress and took as much of the family’s riches as she could carry as per her lover’s wishes. She waited for him in the woods, only to be caught unawares in the dark. The next thing she knew, she was dead, broke, and dumped. She vowed to wait in her makeshift grave until her true love set her free, and Victor happened to be the lucky stiff who found her first. Though Victor pities Emily, he dashes out of the pub as soon as he’s able to look for a way home.
Back in the living world, the Van Dorts and Everglots are waiting for Victor’s return, though Victoria is the only one who seems genuinely worried about him. Barkis interrupts Nell’s embarrassing stories about her son with the town crier, revealing that he spotted Victor in the company of a “mystery woman” and disappeared into the woods with her. Naturally, this throws everyone into a state of shock – Victoria is speechless, Maudeline frets over the impending gossip, Finis is ready to break out his musket and make this a shotgun wedding, and the Van Dorts beg them to let them find Victor. Maudeline gives them until dawn to do so.
Victor, meanwhile, is evading his new wife through the winding alleys of the underworld. Emily finds him, aided by a Peter Lorre-esque maggot who lives in her head and acts like her demented Jiminy Cricket. Victor tells her he needs to get back home, but Emily tries to make him feel at home with her by giving him a wonderful wedding present – his childhood dog Scraps, now an adorable skeleton pup. Between Zero the ghost dog, Scraps the skeleton dog, and Sparky the re-animated dog, does anyone find it weird but oddly sweet how Tim Burton showcases the love between a boy and his dog no matter the state they’re in?
Discussion turns to Victor’s family, and he comes up with the idea of returning to the living world under the pretense of introducing Emily to his parents. After some initial confusion (“What a fantastic idea! Where are they buried?”) Emily suggests they seek out Elder Gutknecht (Michael Gough), the oldest and wisest skeleton in the Land of the Dead to help them. Dear old Gutknecht is perturbed by their request (“Why go up there when everyone is dying to get down here?”) but Emily charms him into finding a solution. After much searching, he uncovers an old Ukranian haunting spell that will transport them to the Land of the Living. But because the writers couldn’t think of any good nonsense words and the Sherman Brothers had the day off, the magic word to bring them back to the Land of the Dead is simply “hopscotch”. I’m sure that’s the joke, but it would have been funnier if the buildup towards it were better.
Anyway, Victor and Emily reappear in the woods. The mere sight of the moon after years in the darkness fills Emily with such joy that she’s moved to dance. Victor waltzes with her for a moment (they played this up as a big romantic moment in the trailer so I’m a little disappointed that it’s so short) before asking her to wait while he breaks the news to his parents. Once Emily’s out of sight, Victor runs right to Victoria’s place intending to go through the front door and explain himself. Unfortunately he overhears Finis and Maudeline saying how they’re going to kill him the moment they lay eyes on him, so that’s out. He climbs up Victoria’s balcony to her room, where she’s overjoyed to find he’s safe.
Victor tries to tell Victoria about his impromptu marriage, but only gets as far as admitting that he has truly fallen for her (which she openly reciprocates) when Emily appears, spurred into looking for her husband by the suspicious maggot. She takes one look at Victor and Victoria together and realizes “Hey, wait a minute…Victor-Victoria would be a really good stage name for a cross-dressing act. But more importantly, I’VE BEEN MARRIED FOR FIVE MINUTES AND MY HUSBAND IS ALREADY CHEATING ON ME!”
Emily drags Victor screaming back to the Land of the Dead. She calls Victor out for lying to her to get back to “that other woman”. Though Victor explains it’s the other way around, Emily’s not exactly in the wrong here. Victor did obscure his true reasons for wanting to return to the Land of the Living. He also made no mention of Victoria or the circumstances around his “proposal” to Emily before, and that’s as good as lying too. It doesn’t fall into the category of liar revealed misunderstandings because Victor done goofed up here, and now he has to face the consequences as Emily literally cries her eyes out.
To his credit, Victor attempts to ease Emily into his point of view as gently as he can: he’s alive, she’s not, and that’s an awfully big gap for a man and a corpse to overcome. Emily says he should have thought of that when he asked her to marry him, and Victor exclaims that this marriage was a mistake and he’d never marry her. Even though he meant to say it as this marriage was the result of a misunderstanding, it still comes off as Victor telling Emily he wouldn’t marry her even if she were alive which…
Victor immediately regrets his outburst, but Emily runs off, heartbroken. Scraps, the maggot and a friendly black widow spider (Jane Horrocks) try to comfort her with Song #3, “Tears to Shed”. It’s largely spoken and composed of them comparing Emily’s attractive qualities to Victoria in between repeating “Overrated! Overblown!” a lot, which…Danny, I love you, but you dropped the ball on this one. Emily’s verses are what salvages the affair. She compares the pain of Victor’s betrayal and her heartbreak twice-over to the physical pain only the living can feel; she can’t be burned by flames or cut by knives, but what she’s going through is just as real and agonizing. Helena Bonham Carter isn’t a strong singer by any means, but the emotion she brings to her part packs a as powerful a blow as any gut-punch.
While this is going on, Victoria reveals to her mother and her maid Hildegarde that her fiancee has been kidnapped by the living dead. Maudeline is more upset that a man was in Victoria’s room (such impropriety!!) but locks up Victoria because she sounds certifiably crazy. With no help in sight, Victoria escapes on her own to find a way to save Victor.
I think now is as good a time as any to talk about the love triangle in this movie, and the trope in general. They’re complicated things that can make for fascinating romantic intrigue, though more often than not writers will lean heavily towards one partner – usually the more layered and less stable one – making the other a disappointing Milquetoast McGee that everyone hates when they eventually win. Comic book fans will always beg for Jean Gray to hook up with bad boy Wolverine over boy scout Cyclops, 80’s movie buffs are still sore that Pretty in Pink’s Andie hooked up with Prince Blaine Charming instead of her obsessed friend Duckie, and admittedly, depending on what adaptation of Phantom of the Opera I’m watching, there will always be a part of me rooting for the Phantom and Christine to stay together. In the art book for Corpse Bride, storyboard supervisor Jeff Lynch stated that they wanted to make Victoria more than just the other woman that nobody likes, and I think they succeeded. Emily may have the bigger draw (a tragic backstory, a sweet and playful personality, and the same hobbies as Victor), but Victoria endures trial after trial to rescue Victor and herself, suffering silently until she can’t stand it anymore and fights back. With her great escape, you sense that she is openly disobeying her strict parents for the very first time, and you root for her. She may be a product of her time, but she also goes through tremendous growth and remains sympathetic throughout, showing she’s just as worthy of Victor and the audience’s love as Emily is.
Once Victoria evades her family’s notice, she braves a storm to consult with Pastor Galswells since, as a man of the cloth, he must have some idea of what lies beyond death. Galswells is perturbed by Victoria’s pleas, yet offers a solution…then immediately drags her back home. It really sucks that they built up the notion of Galswells having some supernatural knowledge or a method to actually help Victoria only for this plot thread to go nowhere. Again, having another open-minded voice of wisdom on her side that could have given her a fighting chance would have been nice. It would have been even better if it was from an unfamiliar yet caring source that embraces the unknown like a different religion, especially since the general Christian attitude towards anything slightly different then was to point at it and scream “EEEEVIIIILLL!!” (not that much has changed, unfortunately). Speaking of, God I hope Galswells didn’t initiate any Frollo-type shenanigans during that brief cut to black.
Victoria is double-bolted into her chambers (not that it stops her from trying to break out again) while Finis and Maudeline despair over what to do next. The guests have arrived, the groom’s eloped and they’ll have scandal upon scandal to deal with in addition to their financial woes. That’s when Barkis steps in, lamenting how Victor threw away a treasure like Victoria and he would spoil his own bride rotten if she hadn’t died tragically years before (hmmmmmm…)
The Everglots alter their plans so now Victoria will marry Barkis. Victoria finally stands up to her parents and refuses, but they remind her that they’ll be tossed out into the streets without her fiancee’s promised fortune, leaving her no choice. Once Barkis is alone, he doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he’s the bad guy, cackling and monologuing to Victoria’s portrait that the death in “til death do us part” will come sooner than she thinks. Barkis and Victoria are wed and…is it wrong of me to laugh at how utterly blanked out poor Victoria looks?
Meanwhile the Van Dorts are still searching for their wayward son. They overhear the town crier declaring the news of Victoria’s marriage just in time for their emphysema-stricken coachman Mayhew to suffer a coughing fit, fall off and get run over by his own coach. The Van Dorts continue on their way unaware of his demise, never to be seen again. Their fate has been a source of speculation for years among fans. I always thought that their coach crashed and killed them. What tragic irony would it be to find their son at last but have no way of dragging him back home! How satisfying would it be to give Victor a way of confronting his parents over how they treated him and how it led to this. Oh well, maybe nobody wanted Victor to suffer the trauma of being married against his will and losing both his parents in the same night.
In the Land of the Dead, Victor finds Emily sadly playing away at the bar piano and apologizes to her. The most beautiful thing about this scene isn’t what Victor says, but how they both say what they’re feeling and change the other’s minds without speaking at all. Victor joins Emily at the piano and repeats a few keys up the scale, almost as if he’s trying to get her notice him. She plays her piece with finality, attempting to shut him out. Instead of giving up, Victor shifts the tune from “Tears to Shed” to his theme, pausing at intervals to encourage Emily to join him. Sure enough, Emily sees it as a challenge. In time, she goes from vehement jamming to being in total harmony with Victor. So much is conveyed within a single minute and without dialogue. When Victor finally does speak up, he commends Emily’s enthusiasm, a quality he was once put off by, and re-attaches her errant dismembered hand. Compare this to earlier in the film when he was absolutely horrified at her disjointed parts clinging to him. In this moment, Victor proves that he does care about Emily and has made the first major step in mending things with her, and she doesn’t even need to say that she forgives him. The animation says it for us.
Their reverie is interrupted by the welcoming committee embracing their newest arrival, Mayhew. The fellow’s not that shaken up by his change in living status, in fact he finally gets to say a few lines. Mayhew reunites with Victor and catches him up on the living world; due to his secondhand knowledge of Victoria’s wedding, however, Victor believes Victoria got tired of waiting for him and married someone else of her own free will. He wanders off to mope, leaving Emily confused.
If the fates had their way, there would have been another song here that definitely would have stood among the better ones. I used to find it odd that Victor never sang anything despite this movie being a musical. It’s not like Johnny Depp can’t sing (not amazingly, mind you, but he can still carry a tune). Then Danny Elfman released a box set of all the music he created for Tim Burton’s works complete with demos, and among them were two versions of a song called “Erased”.
It’s a shame this was cut. It really digs into Victor’s thoughts regarding this revelation, everything that’s happened to him beforehand, and sets up the decision he makes that kicks off the final act. I can imagine Victor singing it to himself morosely as he looks over the flowers Victoria gave him, the one reminder of her that he carried with him throughout his strange odyssey. Now that her love for him has seemingly wilted, so too have the blossoms.
Victor overhears Emily discussing her relationship issues with the pub’s cook when Elder Gutknecht and the maggot burst in with some alarming news: they have just discovered her marriage to Victor isn’t binding after all. The vows are meant to last until death do them part, but death has already parted Emily from her groom. Victor would have to return to the Land of the Living, repeat his vows to her, and then kill himself so they could be together forever.
Emily is at a crossroads. On the one hand, she is terrified that Victor will leave her again if he learns they’re not really married. On the other, she openly admits she could never bring herself to make him give up his life for her – and yet she doesn’t have to. Victor makes himself known and tells her he will do it. Maybe it’s seeing Emily act so selflessly when faced with this impossible choice, maybe it’s the despair over Victoria driving him into her arms, or maybe after their bonding he’s realized they can make this marriage work after all, even if it means he has to make the greatest sacrifice. Whatever the case, Victor vows to take the plunge.
Victor and Emily invite the denizens of the dead to join them upstairs for the ceremony and we get our final song, simply titled “The Wedding Song”. It kind of follows in the vein of “Tears to Shed” where much of the song is made up of repeated phrases, mainly “A wedding! A wedding! Here comes the bride! We’re going to have a wedding! Huzzah! Hooray! The bride is getting married today!” but this time arranged with an operatic choir and patter that makes it sound identical to Gilbert and Sullivan, so it’s not that bad. The scene also shows just how much the dead have accepted Victor as one of them, proudly helping him spruce up and vowing to help Emily fulfill her dreams. And let’s not kid ourselves, the chorus of skeleton soldiers is what makes this number.
The wedding party moves above ground, and by a staggering coincidence, they pop up right in the middle of Victoria and Barkis’ drab dinner reception. The guests panic; even the unflappable Finis and Maudeline run off screaming at the sight of their deceased ancestors. Again, Victoria’s reaction is my favorite: she sits there staring quietly with a small smile on her face as if thinking “Yep, I was right all along. Called it, suckers.” A terrified Barkis demands they grab Victoria’s dowry and scram. Victoria quickly deduces that Barkis only married her to get rich and politely informs him that her family is bankrupt. She remains shockingly calm in the face of Barkis’ manhandling and raving, ultimately shoving him away and telling him to piss off.
The dead spill out on to the streets, throwing the village into a frenzy. Everyone is on the defense until a little boy recognizes one of the corpses as his beloved grandfather. From there it’s happy reunions all around. The living and dead join hands and make their way to the church. In one of the funniest moments of the film, Pastor Galswell dramatically tries to ward off the deceased interlopers with his staff only for them to politely pass him by.
Victoria trails the guests into the back of the church and witnesses Victor repeating his vows perfectly to Emily. Emily begins her part as she pours the poisoned wine for Victor to drink, but falters when she spies Victoria. Victoria is too bewildered and shy to speak up for herself, which leaves everything in Emily’s hands. For the first time, Emily sees Victoria not as “the other woman” but as someone like her, a bride yearning for love only to have it snatched away. Her only crime is that they’re both in love with the same man. And that’s when doubt over who’s the right bride in this scenario seeps in.
The familiar words rise in Emily’s throat but die just as quickly. Victor, mistaking her hesitation for the same jitters he once had, finishes for her. He puts the chalice to his lips – and Emily stops him from drinking in time.
I can’t. This is wrong. I was a bride. My dreams were taken from me. But now…now I’ve stolen them from someone else. I love you, Victor, but you’re not mine.
A sudden turnaround? Yes, but everything, and I mean everything that makes it work rests on the subtle animation, and Helena Bonham Carter’s performance. “Tears to Shed” was bad enough, but that perfect mix of tenderness and regret will put a lump in your throat. It doesn’t show as much in the version I typed up, but the corpse bride was much more antagonistic, clingy and haughty in her story. Here, Emily recognizes the depth of her actions and willingly sacrifices her own happiness so Victoria can have a chance at the love she was denied in life. It’s a moving, bittersweet spin on the resolution of the original folktale.
And let’s face it, if Emily did go through with the ceremony, nobody would be happy in the end: Victor would have killed himself and be forced to leave everything and everyone he knew behind, Emily would have to live the guilt that she allowed it to happen just so she could tie the knot with him, Victoria would be trapped in a loveless marriage that ends with her death – think of how awkward her appearing in the Land of the Dead after Victor and Emily getting hitched would be – and both families would have lost their wealth, prestige and children without ever knowing what happened to the latter.
So it would seem this is happily ever after for our former love triangle… except Barkis barges in to take back Victoria as a consolation prize. Then Emily recognizes him and he recognizes her and – you might want to sit yourselves down for this. It’s a doozy. You will be blown away by the absolute shock and awe of this massive reveal. Those of you with weak constitutions might want to leave the blog immediately.
You see…Barkis was the one who seduced and murdered Emily!
Barkis nabs a sword off the general and he and Victor engage in a
sword knife-and-fork fight that is as humorous as it is tense. Also, points to Emily for going out of her way to protect her from the collateral damage the duel inflicts on the church even after giving up Victor to her. Barkis disarms Victor, but before he can deliver the final blow, Emily throws herself in the way, taking the blade in the same spot where it’s implied Barkis stabbed her years before. Without even blinking, she pulls the sword from her chest, points it in his face and growls “Get. Out.”
Barkis knows that he’s beaten, yet he just can’t leave without twisting the knife first. He takes the wine and toasts mockingly to the always bridesmaid but never bride Emily: “Tell me…can a heart still break once it’s stopped beating?”
The assembled dead are ready to tear Barkis a new one, but Gutknecht stops them; the ancient laws forbid them from physically harming the living whilst in their realm, so no zombie mode for them, unfortunately. But nobody bothered to tell Barkis that the toast he just drank was Victor’s poison. Not five seconds pass before he goes blue and stops breathing. The dead can feel no pain, it’s true, but the human brain can still register it for up to ten minutes after a person is legally declared dead, and now the vengeful deadfolk are going to make every second count.
Though Victor and Victoria are free to be together now, Victor feels honor-bound to keep the promise he made to Emily. She insists, however, that he already has: “You set me free. Now I can do the same to you.” She gives him back his ring, tosses the bouquet to Victoria, and instead of following the dead back underground, she steps outside the church. Then…oh god, there are no words for how beautiful this ending is. Emily, having found peace at last, dissolves into a flock of butterflies that fly away into the moonlight.
In the West, a butterfly symbolizes rebirth; a sentimental take that is that it is a bride or someone who died young reborn. Whether it’s symbolic of her soul flying up to heaven or she’s now free to live a thousand beautiful lives is all a matter of interpretation, but it is a breathtaking sight and a perfect capper to this odd little fable.
I was initially upset when Corpse Bride lost the Best Animated Feature Oscar to Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, though after seeing it for myself a few years later I acknowledge that it’s the superior film. Yet despite that, I still have a deep fondness for Corpse Bride. It has its problems – the pace is a bit too brisk for my liking, the facial animation isn’t quite as expressive as its predecessor – but it’s a sweet sophomore sister film to The Nightmare Before Christmas that packs so much emotion in under 75 minutes. More importantly, if it weren’t for Corpse Bride, we wouldn’t have Coraline and Laika’s other hits – and that’s not hyperbole. Before Laika became an independent studio, Warner Bros. contracted them to make Corpse Bride. The artistry and potential is on full display here, even with a few bumps in the road. Most of the characters’ mouth movements and expressions were created not by swapping parts as per the norm, but by meticulously winding a key that would stick in the puppets’ heads. Apparently the process was so consuming that one animator reported having nightmares where his own head was being controlled the same way! Every bit of hard work is on full display here, though I wouldn’t mind seeing the story expanded upon. If Beetlejuice can get a musical that makes it great source even better, why not Corpse Bride? Well, until that day comes, we still have this sweet spooky movie to enjoy.
If you enjoyed this review, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Patreon supporters receive great perks such as extra votes for movie reviews, requests, early sneak-peeks, and more. Special thanks to Amelia Jones, Gordhan Rajani and Sam Minden for their contributions, especially at this time.
Screencaps provided by animationscreencaps.com