Maggie McMuffin unearths Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, detailing trauma, the “learned bullshit” of society in relation to love and marriage, and high school years fraught with emotions worthy of Wuthering Heights.
15 was the age that a lot of shit went down for me. My depression, inherited from my therapy-hating mother, began to appear. I started the slow slide from honors student to “advanced but disappointing” and I was about to have my heart broken for the first time by a boy who I would, no shit, end up spending the next three years performing a modernized version ofWuthering Heights with. Seriously. We hit points none of the adaptations do.
Corpse Bride came out when all of this was under way. The boy had, without telling me, decided to take another, younger girl to Homecoming (quite a feat since I was a sophomore). We were all working on a school play together (she had beaten me out for the lead and I ended up working props) so it was awkward and I had decided not to be mean to her since she had no idea this was all going down, which meant I was spending my days sort of stiff upper lipping the whole thing.
But damn was I a teenage wreck.
My mother took me to see every single movie paying at our three-screen theater that week. I don’t remember the other two films. But I remember having been excited about Corpse Bridebefore this happened. Stop-motion! Johnny Depp! Dead things! Victorian era! My mom, not being into that stuff, had remembered me mentioning the movie before and suggested we go see it after school one day. That was also the first day I ever utilized the “feel shitty, look pretty” principle. I was wearing an ankle-length semi-formal skirt, a stretchy red top, my early attempts at makeup, and sunglasses (to hide the constant crying). People constantly asked what I was dressed up for and I said “Just because” and felt cool. When the time came to go to the movie, I asked my mom if I was too dressed up to go to the movies and we decided it was okay to dress up for mundane things sometimes.
Looking back, that outfit is what I would now think of as casual.
I can’t remember if I cried during the film. I was crying a lot then. But I know I left the film thinking how great it was that Emily got to turn into butterflies at the end. How wonderful it would be if I could give my blessing to the happy couple and just disappear.
While I now maintain that the film’s happy ending is mature because it’s good to say ‘hey, I’m not the one for you, she is’ and then get ultimate closure from that, I do think I took it to heart a bit too much since that boy ended up leaving me for about five other women over the course of our high school time together. Each time, I was pleasant to them, aware that they had no idea who I was or why I maybe seemed a bit terse around them. When I began dating again at 21, I still ended up with partners who would find someone new (this time semi-consensually in poly formats), slowly or abruptly inform me of my inferiority to them, and then I would leave. At first I romanticized this pattern, seeing myself as the embodiment of the ‘I Want My Beloved to be Happy’ trope. Later on, it became clear I was just intensely guarded, unable to trust, and quick to throw up my hands and go ‘FINE’ the minute my partners showed an interest in anyone after me. I’m a very bitter polyamorist. I’m working on it but in preparing to watch this film, I really do have to wonder if like so many teenagers I looked at a Tim Burton movie and took the wrong lessons to heart.
I haven’t seen the movie much since then. I rewatched it over the years. I asked the movie theater to give me the glass stick-ups and they lived on my mother’s microwave for the next three years. Funnily enough, that Halloween, the girl who the boy originally dumped me for dressed as Emily. We took a picture together. I smiled as best I could in my drugstore Wicked Witch face paint.
The point is, I haven’t seen it in years. My go to Burton flick is Big Fish and honestly I haven’t found many people clamoring to watch Corpse Bride the way they do The Nightmare Before Christmas even though I remember it being a solid movie.
But maybe I just saw it at the time I needed to and now, as a more mature and adult woman who understands Wuthering Heights is unhealthy, it won’t mean as much or seem as poignant.
Aw hell, Danny Elfman plays a drunk skeleton in it. It’ll probably still be good.
Okay the Danny Elfman skeleton is kind of problematic. I didn’t notice that before. As my partner said “Let’s acknowledge Danny Elfman’s ongoing obsession with being a black jazz musician.” We can get to that later.
The film opens on a drab and gray stop-motion city and people are singing about the impending wedding rehearsal of Victor Van Dort and Victoria Everglot. We learn that Victor’s family is nouveau riche looking forward to elevating themselves, while Victoria’s is bankrupt aristocracy who are gritting their teeth over aligning themselves to commoners in order to avoid the poor house. The song “According to Plan” is also the first time we hear that particular phrase, which will show up enough to qualify as a drinking game rule. The song also includes one of my favorite lines, “Our daughter with the face of an otter in disgrace,” which is also one of the many things in the next couple of scenes that show off that Victor and Victoria are both controlled and degraded by their parents. Both bride and groom worry they won’t love the other and are simply told that marriage is not about love and to buck up. Lord and Lady Everglot go so far as to scoff “Of course not!” when Victoria says that they must love one another at least a little.
The Everglots and Van Dorts don’t get along, merely playing nice, but Victor and Victoria manage to fall in love immediately. Victor plays the piano well and Victoria is entranced by it, never having been allowed to learn for herself as her mother deemed it “too passionate.” They share a touching first scene that manages to show that while both of them are individuals who have yet to fully come into their own, they are far from fragile and broken. Victoria more so than Victor, who bumbles his way through the wedding rehearsal and is kicked out after setting Lady Everglot on fire.
The rehearsal is interrupted by one Lord Barkus, who you can tell by his large chin and smarmy voice is probably going to be some sort of antagonist. He immediately starts schmoozing the Everglots, laying the groundwork to become fiancé understudy.
Victor wanders off into the woods, dejected at his inability to remember his vows. He spends what seems to be hours practicing and fucking up before realizing that he does love Victoria and, bursting with newfound confidence, delivers the vows so perfectly and passionately that he raises a lovelorn corpse from the dead. Here we have the titular Corpse Bride, who is lovely and blue and, as my friend Brooke once described, “That time when Tim Burton put his second wife’s head on his first wife’s body.”
This mysterious woman whisks Victor away to the land of the dead, a colorful alternative to the land of the living. There’s a bar, a welcoming committee, and comic relief. There’s still women with impossibly corseted bodies though because being dead doesn’t mean being free from society’s beauty standards. Seriously, with one exception every single obviously female character is shaped the same, regardless of actual size. Emily, the Corpse Bride, even has visible ribs and her tit-to-waist-to-hip ratio is ridiculous. Though, again, she does have Lisa Marie’s body and that woman is legitimately built like Jessica Rabbit.
We get another exposition song, played by the aforementioned problematic skeleton Bonejangles. We learn that Emily eloped with a handsome stranger, family fortune in hand, and waited for him in the woods only to be murdered by him. The story is acted out with silhouettes and those paying attention will note that Emily’s fiancé sure look familiar. Spoiler: It’s Lord Barkus. I would be mad about how simple this is but I’m pretty sure this is supposed to be a family film so I’ll let it slide.
Victor runs out horrified and Emily follows, laughing. Emily is…a little dense to Victor’s panic. She’s just happy to be married after years of being buried in the woods. All she’s wanted was a husband and she made a vow to “wait for her true love to come set her free.” As far as she’s concerned, she and Victor are happy. They’re married, aren’t they? Surely that’s what love is. Also, giving your new spouse the gift of their dead dog which is, admittedly, quite nice. Then he gets the idea that Emily should meet his parents and gets her to tell him how to go “upstairs.” Emily, who seriously never stops smiling and is aggressively cheerful to the point of it being unnatural, happily takes him to Elder Gutknacht, who fixes them up with a Ukrainian haunting spell.
Once above ground, Emily muses about the beauty of the sky (she was just up here abducting Victor but okay) and dances about. It’s lovely and also shows off the character design. Emily may have that figure, but she’s also dead. Aside from the ribs and her loose eye, she’s got a bit of skin around her bone leg that bags like a sock and it’s touches like that that make this movie for me. Also, stop-motion is expensive but this film has a lot of visual gags and dance sequences that make everything come alive (sorry). It makes the film seem less like a cash in on The Nightmare Before Christmas nostalgia (as I’ve heard it accused of) and more like its own labor of love that said damn the money we want to make something good.
Victor leaves Emily waiting in the woods which seems a bit callus given that she got murdered while waiting for a man in the woods. But, oh well. Victor runs off to find Victoria, who has been sad that he’s been missing. She’s also been told he ran off with a mystery woman and refuses to believe it. She refuses even harder once Victor climbs her balcony to see her, the first of several increasingly brave acts he commits. He tried to explain the situation but before he can two things happen.
1) He and Victoria declare that while marriage frightened them that morning, they are both in love with one another and can’t be wed soon enough. Is the timeline fast? Sure. But it’s a kid’s movie and their first scene, as well as their silent interactions at the rehearsal, actually did enough work to make it believable that they feel something for each other. It’s very sweet.
2) Emily shows up and gets really jealous. Victor manages to tell Victoria “I seem to find myself married and you should know it’s unexpected” before Emily reverses the haunting spell.
Once back in the land of the dead, Emily berates Victor for lying to her so that he could get back to “that other woman.”
“But don’t you understand? You’re the other woman.”
“You’re married to me! She’s the other woman!”
And we see Emily break into tears as Victor explains that they’re just too different to be married!
Also, he proposed on accident.
She removes her veil, tears apart her wedding bouquet, and refuses to accept the musical pep talk from two supporting characters. This is where it becomes clear that this movie actually has some things to say about love and marriage. Because if you look at the story as a funny misunderstanding between man and corpse, it’s a weird romp through life and death. But if you look at this as two people raised by a society which throws people into marriages and expects and demands them to be happy with each other, who have both experienced love outside of marriage, one of whom has experienced some pretty heavy trauma as a result vis-à-vis being fucking murdered and one who has never had the freedom to go for what he wants and then had it snatched from him well…you’ve actually got a story about two young adults trying to figure out what the hell love looks like and fighting against a lifetime of learned bullshit. These are people who really want love but have been told to want marriage, two things which are not always the same thing.
But there’s a third person learning that lesson too, and Victoria is frantically trying to convince her parents that Victor needs help. When they lock her in her room, she climbs down the balcony to visit the pastor and demand answers, as he is the only person in the village who knows what happens after someone dies. He responds by taking her home and accusing her of speaking in tongues. Victoria’s hair is also loose from its tight bun at this point, giving us some nice symbolism of her breaking free. Things get worse when she’s informed that she’ll be marrying Lord Barkus after he gave her parents a charismatic speech about how he would shower Victoria in riches. Victoria is less than pleased. Oh, and Barkus went off to talk to the air about how he’s going to kill Victoria once they’re married. So there’s that.
Meanwhile, Victor finds the sad and silent Emily playing piano. He tries apologizing to her but she doesn’t want to hear it. He starts to play along and she gets upset but it soon turns into a duel and then a duet. By the end, her hand has run off.
“Pardon my enthusiasm.”
“I like your enthusiasm.”
It’s similar to Victor and Victoria’s meeting in the way that many things nicely parallel between Emily and Victoria and at the end of it Victor and Emily have made up. However, they don’t seem to be in love, merely friends. This is important to note for the big lesson at the end.
Meanwhile, Victor’s parents’ driver has also died and shown up in the land of the dead to relay that Victoria is getting married. There’s no way to stop it and we see Victor mourn below while up above Victoria sits, refusing to hide how utterly crushed she is. “I feel like I’m being pulled out by a tide.” Her maid, offering more comfort than her parents, offers “The sea leads to many places. Maybe you’ll land somewhere better.” Which is…actually a very understanding thing to say. It acknowledges Victoria’s pain while also offering hope. It’s one of the first cases in the movie of someone being genuinely kind to another person, not just pushing them into what they feel is best for them. The parents don’t care about their children’s happiness, and the dead don’t care if Emily marries someone good for her, just that she fulfills her wish of being married. Above and below people don’t really listen. Victoria accepts this kindness but goes through her wedding with a wide-eyed pout that is as aggressive in its sadness as Emily’s smile was in its joy earlier. Victoria is doing this because she has no choice but goddamnit she is not going to pretend she’s anything but destroyed.
Right after we see this, we learn from Elder Gutknacht that Emily and Victor’s marriage is invalid. The vows are only valid until death do them part and “Death has already parted you.” He says that if they resaid their vows and Victor drank from the wine of ages, they could be wed, but Emily could never ask Victor to do that. Too bad! He listened and since he can’t marry the woman he loves he’ll do this! He’s warned that “If you choose this path you can never return to the land above,” which is a pretty unsubtle way of saying there’s no way back from romantic suicide. But life above will suck anyway so let’s have a wedding! And another song! Everyone in the land of the dead is excited and helping and also heading to the land above even though Elder Gutknacht said this vow renewal needs to happen in the land of the dead.
The dead crash the living world as Victoria and Barkus’ dreary wedding reception takes place. It is really sad, you guys. And it’s really heavy-handed and kind of worrisome to frame death and this big party and life as this drab affair, especially since we have a character who is actively planning to commit suicide in order to find happiness. That’s a problem, mostly because it’s not the point of this story, but this scene legitimately made me sad to watch. And when it all goes to hell and Barkus tells Victoria that she needs to grab the money and go, she informs him that he’s supposed to be the rich one, gives our last echo of “‘did things not go according to your plan?” and marches out after snappily telling Barkus that “in disappointment we are equally matched.”
The dead coming up turns out to be a good thing, actually. Loved ones are reunited, fear turned to elation, and we still get to have a wedding!
Victor and Emily start the vows and Victoria slips in to watch. Emily notices and stops Victor before he can drink the wine, realizing that what she’s doing is wrong.
“I was a bride. My dreams were taken from me. Now. Now I’ve stolen them from someone else. I love you Victor but you are not mine.”
She ushers Victoria over and then Barkus shows up to claim her because if he can’t be rich, at least he can still have this wife. Oh yeah, and this is when the actual reveal happens. Emily’s face goes through a remarkable cycle of realization given this is stop-motion and once she says “It’s you,” Barkus replies “But I left you.” No guilt though because he’s a conniving ass. Victor stands up to him and they swordfight. Barkus nearly wins but Emily leaps in front of his sword and catches it with her torso, pulls said sword out of said torso, and points it at him. She commands him to leave but he decided to be cruel. He toasts to her, “Always a bridesmaid,” and asks if a “heart can still break once it’s stopped beating” before downing what turns out to be the wine of ages. Once he’s dead, the other dead go after him and we don’t see what happens but it’s probably not good.
We’re left with our triangle and some random villagers (Hey, if there was a living dead wedding happening in my dreary village, I would show up too). Victor tries to marry Emily, saying he made a promise.
“You kept your promise. Now I can do the same for you.”
She gives Victor his ring back and goes outside where she transforms into light and butterflies. Victor and Victoria embrace and watch as they dissipate.
And that’s it.
Here’s the thing. This story is simple. It’s super straight-forward. I often forget that some Tim Burton movies are made for children. I think he forgets it sometimes. And I don’t know who wrote this but I know it’s based off of a folk story. Folk stories, much like children’s stories, are meant to convey lessons and that’s easier when you aren’t bogged down with tons of minutiae.
This is a story about three people growing up. Emily is an abused woman who realizes that latching onto the first nice man she meets post-trauma isn’t going to heal her, that what she needs to do is confront her heartbreak. Also being abused is not an excuse to hurt or manipulate others. Victoria is a woman who has been raised to avoid passion and do as she is told learning that she is passionate and that following this passion will lead to happiness. Victor is a terrified young man who learns he has to be brave to be happy.
Most importantly, the film has an overarching message that you cannot plan love. People constantly have plans for marriage in this film and none of them work out. NONE. Because while you can plan a wedding and rehearse it and get all the details right, that’s not the same as falling in love with someone or being right for them. Those things can only happen naturally. And if you want to show you love someone, a better way to do that is to commit genuine acts of love. Be brave for them. Be brave enough to fully commit to them emotionally, not just monetarily or with words someone else wrote for you.
And love is on a spectrum! It is clear at the end that Victor and Emily are fond of one another, that they’ve developed an actual friendship, but it’s not romantic love. It is important to show that two adults not being in love doesn’t mean they hate each other, it just means they aren’t getting married. Emily being friends with Victor and realizing she shouldn’t marry him isn’t second prize, it’s the thing which allows her soul to move on. It’s first prize! It’s great to see this in a family film but god knows there are tons of adults out there who could stand to see that more.
Oh, and another important lesson. Don’t marry strange men who brag about money but never show that they have it. If a man tells you about all the money he has but you never see proof, he doesn’t have money. Just walk away. I already knew that because I worked as a stripper but it’s always nice to have a reminder.
And in case anyone is wondering if I got anything out of the story now that I’m not 15, I did.
Emily didn’t sacrifice herself at the end for someone else. She made the decision that was right for her and it just happened to also be right for the other party. There’s a big difference between those two things, and in the future I’ll try be a little less of a sacrificial martyr and a little more of a healthy friend.
— There are a lot of parallels between Emily and Victoria. Emily is first engaged to Barkus and then married to Victor while Victoria is the other way. Victor climbs a balcony to reach Victoria and another to escape Emily. His first conversation with Victoria has her saying he can call her by her first name while his first with Emily has him asking for hers. There are other smaller ones but I think it’s nice that there are similarities between the two women but that they are different enough. You can’t just replace one fiancee with another after all.
And I love this since at the end Emily is so kind to Victoria. Emily must be far older than Victoria (otherwise her disappearance would probably still be talked about in that village) even if she died around the same age and this time around the final scene felt very much like watching an older woman defend a younger one. Since both of them are going on arcs that end counter (Emily letting go of her idea that love can grant her freedom, Victoria believing that romantic love can exist for her) and are so heavily connected to the same romantic interest it makes sense for them to mirror one another. I also like that Emily realizes in the end that her actions don’t just hurt Victor, but Victoria as well. This film may not pass the Bechdel Test, but at least it’s got female solidarity and isn’t just about Victor.
— Victoria is a straight-up badass and despite her small scenes is a pretty well-developed character. She’s also the only living person with a blush in her cheeks, another small detail I enjoy.
— This movie has songs but they’re spaced out kind of weirdly so it feels wrong to call this thing a musical.
— Emily’s song “Tears to Shed” is also a damned fine example of love hurting. While her friends mean well telling her she’s got a wonderful personality and surely Victor will love her if he just gets to know her, she reminds them that their supportive lies don’t matter because the pain she feels is the most real thing. Sometimes you just need to let your friends mope and move on.
— There is a maggot who lives in Emily’s head who is clearly Claude Rains. But, like, the version that was in Scooby Doo episodes. You will notice I didn’t mention him in the summary and that is because he disgusts me.
— This movie has an amazing cast. The moms are Joanna Lumley and Tracey Ullman. This was Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter playing to their strengths. Albert Finney being pompous. Emily Watson is in it. Michael Gough (god rest his soul)! Christopher Lee (and his)! And of course, Richard E Grant, who plays a rakish Masterpiece Theatre villain like no one else.
— Someone spent a lot of time designing Lady Everglot’s hair and half the time it’s so tall it’s out of frame.