In a gloomy, gray, Victorian-era village, young Victor and Victoria meet for the first time on the eve of their arranged wedding. His crass parents have "new money," while her pompous, cash-poor parents have social standing. The shy, sensitive bride and groom are just delighted to discover they could actually care for each other. But when the bumbling Victor can’t get the vows right at the rehearsal, he retreats to the forest to practice his lines, including the placement of the ring on a low twig.
Said twig turns out to be the bony finger of a vigorous female corpse named Emily, who receives Victor’s unintended vows in earnest and quickly whisks him off to the colorful, riotous Land of the Dead as her new husband. Ever since she was murdered on her wedding night, this Corpse Bride has been waiting for a groom to come and claim her. Suddenly a husband, Victor must somehow find a way back to the living arms of Victoria without breaking the unbeating heart of the sweetly decaying Emily.
The empathetic Victor is not only willing to love a woman he just met but even cares deeply about the feelings of the Corpse Bride. He risks his own wellbeing for both of them. In turn, both make loving sacrifices for him.
On a group outing to the Land of the Living, the corpses refuse to violate the laws of the breathing world even when it would be helpful for them to do so, showing respect for some (unnamed) authority higher than themselves. …
One brief scene hints that there’s at least the potential for a life after the afterlife in the Land of the Dead. That potential "freedom" seems to be connected either to the avenging of a wrongful death or being truly loved.
The village pastor in the Land of the Living, meanwhile, is an overbearing, condemning authoritarian. He mocks Victor’s failed attempts to pronounce his rehearsal vows. When Victoria seeks his help after a brief encounter with Victor and the undead Corpse Bride, he drags her home accusing her of "speaking in tongues about unholy alliances." Later, when a large group of corpses approaches his church, the pastor calls them demons, commanding them to depart. They ignore him, leaving him frightened and forgotten.
In the Land of the Dead, a very old corpse called Elder Goodrict offers counsel, refers to books of magic and mixes potions to give the undead passage to the land of the living. He also performs weddings.
The Corpse Bride’s wedding gown shows cleavage, in addition to revealing a few ribs. However, for all the talk of weddings, consummation is never discussed.
The Land of the Dead is a jolly, raucous place where body parts have a tendency to pop off and clatter about. The Corpse Bride regularly becomes detached from her skeletal arm and leg, as well as an eye. A cheery maggot inhabits her cranium, popping out from her ear or eye to offer quippy dialogue. Other undead include a disembodied head, a Napoleon-looking character who carries a sword through his chest, multiple singing, dancing skeletons, and a host of other corpses in various states of colorful decline.
However, since the dead can’t really be harmed, the only hurtful violence takes place in the Land of the Living. There, a man is fatally poisoned. And a servant chokes and dies. Victor clashes with a living bad guy who attempts to harm Victoria in a fight that includes swordplay and general mayhem. The telling of the Corpse Bride’s story includes a brief, non-specific shadow play of her murder.
Crude or Profane Language
A roguish corpse quotes Rhett Butler’s immortal line, "Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a d‑‑n."
Drug and Alcohol Content
In the Land of the Dead, the corpses patronize a pub. Many drink what looks like beer, and at lease one skeleton is seen drunk, collapsing into a heap of bones on the floor.
Other Negative Elements
Spiders advise and help our heroes in the Land of the Dead, including making repairs to Victor’s suit. Spiders are icky.
The writer of Ecclesiastes said that it’s better to go to a funeral than a party because "death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart." The jovial characters populating the Land of the Dead in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride would agree to a point. But they would add, why not bring the party to the funeral? What else is there to do when you’re dead?
Setting such silly theology aside for a moment, Corpse Bride is a staggering visual achievement. From the imaginative characters with their spindly limbs and exaggerated facial features to the monochrome blue/gray Land of the Living to the riotously colorful Land of the Dead, every meticulous frame is a gothic work of art.
It’s made all the more impressive with a little understanding of the process of stop-motion animation. Each foot-high puppet must be moved just a fraction between each shot to create the illusion. Twelve hours of work often yields just two seconds of usable footage. In our computer-dominated entertainment world, this low-tech, labor-intensive approach results in a timeless quality that’s at once tactile, charming and classic.
The story told from that rich stage is somewhat less engaging. Yes, it’s fanciful and clever, especially in the jokes about the corpses (e.g., "I’ll keep an eye out for him"). It even offers a couple of truly touching moments when the dearly departed are briefly reunited with their loved ones. But the course of the story is never really in doubt, and the macabre setting makes it harder to connect with the characters.
Digging deeper, it’s worth revisiting the symbolism evoked by the dreary Land of the Living contrasted with the vibrant Land of the Dead. Says production designer Alex McDowell, "The Land of the Living is actually this gray, dull, dead place where the people are lifeless and hopeless and sad. And the Land of the Dead is full of vivacious dead people who have a great lust for life. … The implication of course being that the dead are free from all the restrictions that they once suffered in the Land of the Living, so now they’re able to drink and go crazy and have parties and have fun and make jokes and live full lives."
Ultimately, however, the story seems to celebrate life. Victor is willing to sacrifice life for love, but he would prefer to be alive and married to a breathing woman. Even the giddy dead are aware that they are decaying. Whether this Land of the Dead, then, is meant as some happy hell or good-times purgatory is hard to say. It would certainly warrant some theological redirection regarding the truly horrific nature of the afterlife for those who reject Christ.
Which brings me to this: Corpse Bride is meant as a kid’s film. And that raises the question of whether kids should see it. Tim Burton thinks they should decide for themselves. He told Entertainment Weekly, "Adults forget that kids are … the best judge to know whether they can take something or not. It’s unusual to have an animated movie that deals with murder and death and dark themes. But we were always mindful of making sure kids will be able to watch it. We test-screened it with kids, and they loved it the way they love Halloween. It has a sense of safe darkness to it."
Indeed, while the setting is ghoulish and macabre, it’s true that it’s not overly gruesome or gory. And the corpses are garishly comical, not nasty and vile. But with respect to Mr. Burton, I remember a couple of scary movies I thought I was "ready for" as a kid that left me terrified in the nights that followed. No, parents are still better at deciding what entertainment their kids can handle. They’re the ones who have to deal with potential nightmares and tricky questions about the afterlife. They’re the ones who might decide to turn a viewing of Corpse Bride into a productive conversation about what really happens after death. Or, with equal reason (maybe more), decide to steer their kids completely clear of this land of dancing corpses.