Tim Burton started his career as a Disney animation artist in Burbank back in the late 1970s. This was a decade before The Little Mermaid revived the studio’s moribund hand-drawn cartoon output, and it wasn’t a fun time for Burton. He churned out drawing after drawing for the treacly cartoon feature The Fox and the Hound, then worked on the megaflop The Black Cauldron. It took 12 to 24 drawings just to create one second of action on screen, and Burton couldn’t stand the water-torture tediousness. ”I had to leave animation,” he says, speaking from London, where he now lives. ”I couldn’t handle it. My brain couldn’t take it. Because you have to be an artist and also a technician. And you have to have an extreme amount of patience.”
He forged a high-profile career directing live action instead, generating often spectacular box office results and plenty of critical plaudits along the way. But he still loved animation, especially stop-motion animation, which entranced him as a child in Ray Harryhausen’s creature flicks and all those corny Rankin-Bass TV specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. So, he played patron of the art. Acting as a producer, he got Disney to finance (and Henry Selick to direct) 1993’s stop-motion-puppet musical The Nightmare Before Christmas. A modest grosser in theaters, it kept on making ancillary money with videos, TV airings, and Goth-chic collectibles.
Now comes another PG-rated puppet opus, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, codirected by Burton and Mike Johnson (a Nightmare technician making his feature-directing debut). The $40 million boy-meets-ghoul story was financed by Warner Bros., the studio that hired Burton for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, the first two Batman movies, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. With Corpse Bride, the studio is gambling on a tale whose title and tortured-courtship theme aren’t exactly guaranteed audience getters. Burton says the studio asked at one point, Could you maybe consider a different title? But he also says they didn’t offer alternatives. ”Maybe The Not-So-Alive Girl,” he jokes.
Set in a vaguely Eastern European town in the 19th century, Corpse Bride involves a surprisingly angsty, adult roundelay of emotional conflicts between shy Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp), his equally shy fiancée, Victoria (Emily Watson), and the undead, dressed-in-white woman whom Victor accidentally weds when he rehearses his vows over the corpse’s grave (a beautiful apparition voiced by Burton’s wife, Helena Bonham Carter). The poor woman, it turns out, was murdered on her wedding night before she could say ”I do,” so she’s thrilled to finally have a husband. She drags Victor down to an underground land of the dead, and Victor has to choose between keeping an undead wife or going back to a live fiancée.
The movie’s playfully gruesome images percolated in Burton’s head for nearly a decade before he got to put them on film. Around the time he did Nightmare, he was looking for another quirky story to realize in stop-motion. According to Burton, that’s when Joe Ranft, a gifted story artist who worked on many Disney pictures before moving to Pixar, brought him the basic idea for Corpse Bride. (Ranft has an exec-producer credit on the movie. Sadly, he didn’t live to see the final prints; he was killed Aug. 16 in a car accident.)