Monday, October 17, 2005

The Rules of the Game

Editor’s note: These reviews are getting later and later, aren’t they?  I’m having some trouble keeping up.  Heh.  This is getting fun.  For the record: the rule is I post the review before I go to bed.  Not some, “ah! It’s not up by midnight!  I got you!  You’ve failed at your blog!” Gremlins-style rule.  Though if I eat after midnight, I sometimes dream of kissing a mogwai.  And sometimes, if I get wet, balls of fur pop out of my back.  But the fur thing is a medical condition known as mogwaitis.  It doesn’t result in gremlins.  But if you like Gremlins, you’ll love the Kappa!

Day 17: Corpse Bride

At once an exhilarating visual feast and a disappointing, shallow story, Corpse Bride is successful in creating an exciting world, but not in exploring it. Its main problem lies in its protagonists, passive characters who mostly wait for circumstances to revolve in their favor. The movie has a few good moments, but fails to capitalize on them. And yet, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable movie, probably because it is internally consistent. That and it’s very, very pretty.

I have a condition that is either genetically based or firmly rooted in my cultural upbringing. I like animated skeletons. It’s not something I have any control over. When I was a kid and saw an old Disney cartoon featuring dancing skeletons, I was delighted. Later, I became obsessed with the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion skeletons from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. There are a lot of animated skeletons in this movie and they are very well designed and have just the right lighting, highlighting the texture of the bones and giving them a nice expressive color. There’s a pleasing weight to the skeletons, too, an effect that only stop motion can produce. I realize I’m spending a paragraph here talking just about the fucking skeletons, but, again, I have no control over this. There were so many dancing, singing skeletons in this movie, it was like something out of a dream I had when I was ten.

The premise is storybook simple, wonderfully so. Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp), is engaged to Victoria (who has the seemingly inevitable corset scene). It’s an arranged marriage in which the transfer of wealth benefits both of the two youngsters’ families. At the wedding rehearsal, Victor stumbles with his wedding vows to the point that the minister declares the wedding cannot go on until he can remember his words. Feeling the burden of saving these two families, Victor heads out to the woods, where, while practicing saying his vows, he inadvertently proposes to the corpse of a jilted bride. She whisks him away to the land of the dead, as she believes they are married.

The movie is clever in the way it paints the land of the living in grey, Victorian-era drabness while the land of the dead is a colorful, bawdy place. The animation is as top-notch and as inventive as it was in The Nightmare Before Christmas. But the story itself, while seeming like it should be a simple affair, is pretty stagnant. When Victor is taken to the land of the dead, he attempts one act of trickery to get him back to the land of the living, but after that, he mostly just sits around and waits for others to help him out of his predicament. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not particularly engaging here. The Corpse Bride is rendered with a striking scariness when she first rises, but her scariness disappears as quickly as Jack Nicholson goes crazy in The Shining. After a while, the rules governing the two worlds seem arbitrary and confusing (a bad step for any movie dealing in supernatural elements like this movie does) and, after we’ve revisited the same locations again and again, the two worlds feel too insular.

As much as it pains me to say this (being a huge Danny Elfman fan), the musical numbers don’t come off very well here. In fact, they’re a bit out of place. The big, bold, and brassy song that setups the back story to the Corpse Bride is the only song that seems to fit into the milieu correctly, appropriate to the New Orleans-esque land of the dead. The other numbers feel shoehorned in. The opening number suffers from this quite a bit. The characters singing are Victor & Victoria’s parents, stuffy, society people and they don’t look like characters that sing. Their song falls flat and goes on far too long. The other problem that the musical numbers have is something that has been bothering me since I saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory earlier this year. I don’t believe that Tim Burton has a knack for staging musical scenes. The direction of both Charlie and Corpse Bride’s songs felt flat to me, not in tune with the music Elfman had written. The character and camera moves aren’t kinetic enough to carry the songs, and that’s too bad (particularly on the brassy one).

These problems are not to say that I dislike the movie. I enjoyed it quite a bit (see: skeletons). There’s a lot of cleverness to it. I really enjoyed the maggot character who talked like Peter Lorre and the way the dead came into the land of the living at one point in the film (though the reason they do so is, ultimately, boring). If I believed in star ratings, (I don’t) on a four star scale, this movie felt like the perfect three-star movie. Not enough to really sink your teeth into, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, but it goes through the paces enjoyably enough while you’re watching it for its running time (in this case, a paltry 82 minutes). I wish that it had connected on a simpler level with its very simple story, since many of the plot machinations served to literalize and dispel a lot of the magic. Perhaps it would have been better as a short-form film.