Reviews - Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

Review by Blue Sky

It took a few listenings, but eventually I understood the tone of Corpse Bride. First you have to shake every last thought of The Nightmare Before Christmas out of your mind. Next you have to conjure up images of cold miserable unhappy days at primary school. Homesick and depressed, staring out the window at the rain drizzling out over the grey tarmac of the playground. The melancholy of endless autumns and tears over piano practise encapsulated in the monochrome colour scheme and the mournful ticking of the clock which counts slower and slower the long, hard hours.
Then, just as you would shuffle up the streets in the pouring rain, you hear the distant sounds of exotic jazz drift up from dark, dank cellars. Who knew that this was actually the sound of the afterlife you were hearing; full of colour and life and yet not quite vibrant enough to distil the subtle emotional depression which is engulfing the stale air.
Instead of another wacky piece of the joyous child-friendly surrealism with heart that we got in the now legendary The Nightmare Before Christmas, Tim Burton has produced a much more subtle and more personally moving tale. The score and songs are no match for Elfman's fantastic contribution to the earlier stop-motion film, but to be honest if they were as quirkily fun and heart-on-string emotional as those ones were they would be far too out of place in this tale of lost souls wandering for eternity in a tide of Victorian era repression.
Corpse Bride is not a musical as such, and thus the mutilated-handful of songs are only a small portion of the film, compared to Nightmare which would be nothing without Elfman's work. But however disappointing the Corpse numbers may have seemed on first listen, they work well in the context of the story and the entire feel of the piece: deliberately bland turn-of-the-century parlour music which as well as still managing to be annoyingly catchy contrast and compliment the more obnoxious jazz tones of the Land of the Dead, with the one memorable song ('Remains of the Day') seeming far less out of place in this film than Oogie Boogie's similarly styled number in Nightmare.
In the score overall we have a distinctive sound world which - although familiar - is not overflowing with Elfmanisms. Gentle and genuinely touching, the music compliments the simplicity of the tale. A single piano melody rings out and is full of as much emotion as the lushly orchestrated 'Jack's Lament'; except that in Corpse Bride there is a real ache to the tone, and real tragedy. And certainly not a happy ending for all.
Complimenting a simple but mature and heart rendering tale masquerading as a family feature, the score to Corpse Bride is not a major peak in Elfman's oeuvre (in the way Nightmare was twelve years ago) and yet will surely become much loved by a select few who appreciate its evocations of refined, trapped despair.
Ratings: * * * 3/4 (film) / * * * 1/2 (CD)
And wasn't it bloody great to hear him sing properly again?


Review by Bluntinstrument

So here it is. The melodic score that fans of Elfman's predominantly grotesque period have been waiting for since Sleepy Hollow and were disappointed they didn't get with Charlie. What better reason to revisit the lilting style of Edward Scissorhands (and only partially eluded to in Big Fish), the playful spookiness of Beetlejuice and The Frighteners, and the jazz styles he began to exploit further in recent years, than in his return to the field whose score first drew it all together. There is much here that instantly screams Nightmare Before Christmas, and with good reason: the tone and the look of both movies is remarkably similar, balancing wicked visual humour with tragic-romantic plot in a more-than-typical Burton world of stop-motion absurdity. Corpse Bride, however, tones down the song content, although it still plays a huge role in opening up to us the true feelings of the protagonists and furthering the plot. This leaves more space for underscore, which Elfman keeps fresh with constant references to principal themes (of the score itself and the songs—the 'Corpse Bride' theme from the opening is closely related in shape to the Bride's own 'Burning Candle' theme in much the same way as Elfman disregarded single-character-theme tradition for Edward Scissorhands. Other themes are prominent but these are the emotional core of the score) in a never-stopping shift of styles, rhythms and orchestration. The song/score continuity will instantly please those who could not cope with having the songs in Charlie so alien to the rest of the score. The highlight? Danny's boney return as Bonejangles in "Remains of the day" and the sheer G&S cheek of "The wedding song" just miss the top score (the latter is just a little too reminiscent at times of "Making Christmas" from Nightmare).
Quite possibly the composer's recent rush of projects (Charlie, Corpse Bride, Serenada Schizophrana, Charlotte's Web and A Day in the Life of Wilbur Robinson—all booked in advance and with song/score overlaps) has seen him work more frenetically, in a way which we haven't seen since the late 1990s. So far each score has obliterated any suggestion that Elfman might need to repeat himself in order to cope, since the first three scores alone display a remarkable individuality which augments the reviewer's impression of Corpse's worth, hence the generous marking for now. The only small gripe is the way the disc ends with four Cotton Club (1930s) jazz bonus items which subdue the drama of the rest of the score. Had he stuck with one bonus cue he might not have allowed this disc to overstay its welcome—a common complaint made by this reviewer, where fillers and repetition are employed to beef up a disc. We have to face it that away from the film, some scores, though happily not this one, would be far more appreciable as 8 minute suites than 40+ minute releases—but the laughable choral arrangement completing the end credits would have been such a great way to finish, especially as it is not included in the film.
Whilst on disc a Danny Elfman score can sound rather unsettling in its textural variety and occasionally suffer from the common malady of a soundtrack bereft of its image soul, when united with said medium the result is always a fascinating musical journey. One might not always agree with his choices but the artistic decision always has a fascinating edge, and it is Elfman's refusal to stagnate stylistically that helps his reputation endure. With this in mind, the music for Corpse Bride on film is very slightly disappointing. One cannot argue with the effectiveness of the thematic material for the bride or the fun of the 'Wedding song', and it is difficult to argue with Burton's desire for the living world to be accompanied in dreary clockwork with the world of the dead filled with romance and jazz. Where it disappoints is perhaps in comparison with its peers. Both the music and the animation of Tim Burton's Corpse Bride feels shallower in loving detail to The Nightmare Before Christmas. Whereas the earlier film felt fresh and packed with detail, the Corpse Bride feels like a shadow of the same idea. Elfman contributes fewer songs, and these use fewer characters; the "Wedding song" may be great fun, but it is too close to "Making Christmas" and lacks the tension lent in part by the plot; "Remains of the day" is perhaps the only song to rival Oogie Boogie's in Nightmare. Fewer songs should have left more room for the orchestral score to breathe, but although Elfman pushes plenty of the right buttons (resorting to scare tactics last heard in The Frighteners, for instance), the result isn't as memorable as it might have been. Only the echoes of the Corpse Bride theme and the "Tears to shed" theme follow you out of the theatre. Elfman does have fun with the piano, though, and it is indeed great to see stop-motion animation render pianistic skill so much more realistically than the direction of actors in live action. Perhaps it is only the medium and the niggling feeling that Burton hasn't brought enough new to it since his last visit that sours the experience, but the magic in the music just isn't as powerful this time round. Which is a pity, because on disc this music really flies (remember the relative difficulty of such a feat), and is perhaps more successful than Nightmare because it isn't bogged down with the number of faceless characters in songs.
In conclusion, then, the comparative disappointment felt with the music on film (normally Elfman's strength) is counterbalanced by a surprisingly rich and fitting CD release, which only slightly outstays its welcome. In this reviewer's mind, although on first glance Corpse Bride is a dream to early Elfman style lovers, this is perhaps the least absorbing of his work in one of his best years. It still stands above most of the competition from other composers, and only time will tell whether it garners the same cult following that is lavished on The nightmare before Christmas.
Ratings: * * * (film) / * * * * (CD)
N.B. Due to the thematic nature of this score, a fuller feature may be planned in future to investigate.

Review by Pedestrian Wolf

I've been fond of what he's done in the interim, but this is the first film in over a decade that managed to get me choked up the way his early work used to. The title character is one of the most endearing creatures Burton's ever given us. I guess you could argue that the film is too short or under-developed, but the deliberate simplicity is part of the magic - it never pretends to be bigger or more epic than the simple sweet story it has to tell. I also think Elfman's score is one of his most exquisitely beautiful. Moreso than anything he's done since the early 1990s, Corpse Bride is a return to the overtly thematic, bittersweet, and delicately orchestrated fairy tale world he created with Burton for Edward and Nightmare. His alternately gentle and tragic main theme captures the film's heart perfectly each time it appears. I know people are complaining about the songs, but I think they're missing the point - the musical numbers are designed as clever Gilbert and Sullivan pastiches, not hummable show-stoppers. In that regard, I think they work extremely well, and the one Cab Calloway-inspired wild card, "Remains of the Day," is the most ingenious way of delivering a character's backstory I've seen in a very long time.
Ratings * * * * [in film only]

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