Corpse Bride shows that imitation is the sincerest form of flattening. The co-director’s fetishistic obsessions with Victoriana and perversity are on full display in this minor-key horror fantasia—and further literalized by naming the lead lovers Victor (Johnny Depp) and Victoria (Emily Watson)—yet there’s no emotional heft to the audio/visual razzle-dazzle. A few stray moments of wit (a Peter Lorre-esque maggot acting as the titular character’s Jiminy Cricket) and beauty (a grand piano named Harryhausen) aside, Corpse Bride bowdlerizes its inspirations, boiling them down into a postmodern mush of meaninglessness.
This is particularly evident via the Danny Elfman-composed musical numbers (indeed, whatever unwritten rule states that the majority of animated films must be musicals needs to be recalled and rewritten post-haste), which parallel the inane dichotomy at Corpse Bride‘s center, namely that the world of the living is a depressive, desaturated place for repressed personalities while the land of the dead is a happenin’ home for the cool-cat colorful. There’s a superficial differentiation between Corpse Bride‘s musical stylings: for upstairs a zithering, high-octave, spine-stretcher melody that none-too-subtly screams stiff upper lip, for downstairs a jazzy, insistent tribal rhythm that, in its ‘dem bones intensity, quite literally wakes the dead. It could almost be a class commentary (something in the way of juxtaposing Fred Astaire’s regal flights with Gene Kelly’s prole groundings) if it didn’t all finally play as atonal white noise.
Sad to say that every other element of Corpse Bride is similarly pitched to the fore—it’s little wonder that the admittedly impressive stop-motion animation is garnering such acclaim given it’s constantly turning headbutting cartwheels to impress, a shameless display equivalent to the fireworks that distract the zombies in George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead (that mediocre film’s sole satirical jab of any potency.) Like Romero, Burton’s recent obsessions feel retrograde and rote, replaced by an unhealthy and simplistic misanthropy that’s in stark contrast to the transcendent catharsis of his last masterpiece Mars Attacks!. As a result, the faux-mythic images of Corpse Bride (blue butterflies flapping off into the moonlight, a Frankenstein-like awakening that plays as an arboreally-inspired collaboration between Salvador Dalí and Clive Barker) most often fall flat, evaporating into forgotten wisps the moment they hit screen. What remains is a preponderance of shallow mortality puns (Corpse Bride deals in such ersatz witticisms the way other movies trade in pointless potty humor) and a distressing sense that Burton finds issues of life, death, and love to be great big jokes worthy of no more serious exploration beyond his now blandly palatable visual masturbations.