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and Tim Burton
As brides go, we’ve all seen worse. She’s looking a little ashen, yes, and the vermin-chewed gown is pure Miss Havisham. There’s a serious problem, too, with the maggot that keeps popping out of her eye socket for a chat. But Emily still has lovely bones and, more important, she’s a go-getter. Fatally wronged by one groom, she patiently waits for another—and at last finds him in a shy young man who, in the act of rehearsing his wedding vows, mistakenly slips a ring on her bony, outstretched finger. She uses the occasion to pronounce them husband and wife.
As in any marriage, there are trouble spots: Her Victor has a Victoria, a living, breathing fiancée patiently awaiting his return. And the bride must, like any good tax-paying corpse, abide by the regulations of the underworld, which prevent her from being truly married until she can convince Victor to swallow poison in full view of a congregation of skeletons.
In other words, nothing that a persevering threesome can’t work out, at least according to the grand guignol parameters of Tim Burton, whose darkly enchanted world is showcased to diminishing effect in the stop-motion-animated Corpse Bride. Visually sumptuous and emotionally malnourished, the film turns out to be more storyboard than story, a melding of life and death that might just leave you equally indifferent to both states of being.
Indeed, the only plane of existence that Burton and co-director Mike Johnson seem to care about exploring is the strangely arrested winterscape in their own heads. Victoria (voiced by Emily Watson) picks up right where Nightmare Before Christmas ingénue Sally left off. The corpse bride herself (Helena Bonham Carter) is a kissing cousin to Winona Ryder’s equally pallid goth daughter in Beetlejuice, and Victor, with his shadowed eyes and black forelock, is a live ringer for Edward Scissorhands (and is likewise played by Johnny Depp).
The story, of course, is a gender reversal on the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone—but this time, it’s a woman dragging her lover to the underworld. Trouble is, Victor seems far too slight a figure to be warred over by two women. Browbeaten by his social-climbing parents and outmaneuvered by his ghoul bride, he’s such a vague and passive presence from the very start that you can’t imagine what difference his death would actually make. Ditto for Victoria: Though she has to rescue her fiancé and fend off the murderous overtures of an evil aristocrat (Richard T. Grant), she never comes close to taking an active role in her destiny.
A fine irony, maybe—the living don’t know how to; the dead do—but definitely a tough way to build a love triangle. This lack of an emotional core is especially problematic in Corpse Bride because, as dazzlingly articulated as its silicone-skinned puppets are, they remain silicone-skinned puppets, all stylized spindle limbs and horror-pierced eyes. Despite the vocal infusions of a stellar British cast—also including Tracey Ullman, Albert Finney, Joanna Lumley, and Christopher Lee—they feel less real, less “human” than the inhabitants of Finding Nemo or The Incredibles.
No Burton movie lacks the capacity to startle, though, and from time to time, Corpse Bride pops out an image that catches you right in the midsection: a chorus line of dancing skeletons, for instance, trading skulls like top hats and turning each other into string instruments. And toward the end, there’s an astonishing sequence of a dead wedding party invading the Land of the Living: Long-deceased husbands surprise their wives; a rotting old man hugs his still-living grandson; two dogs, indifferent to the fact that one of them is all bones, amorously sniff each other’s asses. In these moments, it’s clear that Burton and Johnson know how to tune the mythic resonances of their story into real comedy and feeling.
Why, then, did they seemingly encourage their screenwriters (John August, Pamela Pettler, and Caroline Thompson) to devote more care to naming the characters—Finnis Everglot, Barkis Bittern—than to making anyone care about them? Why did they allow Corpse Bride’s already-fragile narrative to be periodically shattered by Danny Elfman’s droning cabaret songs? Why did they give their heroine just one good sassing of “Little Miss Living”?
At the start of his career, Burton’s style was a way of thwarting and also teasing out his adolescent sweetness. It has now become a means to no end—the decoration of vacancy. Ravishing but dead, Corpse Bride is all too well-named.
John Dobson is at least as old as some of Tim Burton’s cadavers, and it may be that humanity is divided between those who would let themselves be stopped by him in the street and those who would keep walking. With some regret, I place myself among the latter. If I were to pass him in Greenwich Village or on Fisherman’s Wharf, the sight of his weathered beret and wizened face would stiffen my shoulders. And once I’d gotten a load of his telescope and his vaguely disreputable come-on—“Come see the moon!”—nothing on Earth would persuade me to linger.
But then, Dobson, the 89-year-old hero of Jeffrey Fox Jacobs’ documentary A Sidewalk Astronomer, doesn’t want to show you anything on Earth. Self-taught and staggeringly articulate, he’s a former Vedantic monk who, way back in the ’40s, caught a glimpse of the heavens and decided, as he says, “everyone’s got to see this.” From there, he created the Dobsonian telescope mount, an ingeniously simple apparatus that suddenly made stargazing available to the masses.
Today, whether he’s lecturing at colleges and conventions or treating passers-by to views of the sun and moon, Dobson is still entreating everyone to look up. He has, like all the best teachers, a gift for the honed sentence. “We’re made out of the dust of exploded stars,” he proclaims, a pretty existential truism that pales next to this one: “All habitats are temporary.” And he has, in Jacobs, a tireless devotee, who trails him from San Francisco to Vermont recording each crotchety opinion.
Your affection for Jacobs’ enterprise may be determined by your feelings for Dobson. From my angle, he seems too reflexive with the quips and too addicted to being the smartest guy in the room. (See how he bridles when an actual astronomer challenges his ideas about the Big Bang and dark matter.) And it’s an unexplored irony that the man who wants us to know everything about the cosmos tells us so little about his own universe.
Jacobs’ disinclination to probe this prickly fellow is what keeps A Sidewalk Astronomer squarely in the realm of educational TV. But good-for-you can still be good for you. With its clever use of NASA satellite footage and animation, the movie does give us a vivid sampling of astronomical wonders. For those of us who would otherwise pass John Dobson on the street, we can now at least see what he wanted to show us: “Here are the actors…hydrogen and helium. What is the name of the play? Folly. Where is the theater? In space. Where do you go to get there? In time.”CP