Necrophilia is the unspoken threat in Just Like Heaven and Corpse Bride. Both are highly accessible. But where Just Like Heaven is soap opera treacle, only the Tim Burton film has the courage to address the lure of dead things as a rejection of established civility.
Yeah, Burton went there already with Winona Ryder’s Lydia in Beetlejuice. But the capacity to understand the world by standing apart from it is central to Burton’s movies. Co-directed with Mike Johnson, Corpse Bride brings idiosyncratic art to the mainstream, making it lively and identifiable.
A Victorian young man named Victor (voice of Johnny Depp) is about to go through marrying his arranged wife-to-be Victoria (Emily Watson). While he’s rehearsing his vows in a forest one night, the buried Emily (Helena Bonham Carter) rises from the earth and accepts him as her husband. Victor is torn between his wife in the land of the dead, and his fiance in the land of the living, a world he’s never much fit into.
Let’s get this out of the way: Corpse Bride is not as good as its stop-motion predecessor The Nightmare Before Christmas. Its ambitions and scope are smaller. And its protagonist isn’t nearly as inspired a creation as Jack Skellington. As the ringleader of Halloweentown trying to expand beyond the confines he’s so naturally good at, Skellington might be the most understanding, original portrait of an artist in contemporary cinema. Corpse Bride’s Victor is a comparatively thin Burton-Depp mope. It’s the character of Emily, the corpse bride, who is the film’s most rounded tragic figure.
Touched with funny and gross details (a worm living behind her eyeball is the voice of her conscience), none of Burton’s female characters since Catwoman have been granted this kind of attention. As the proper lad’s decaying-freak love interest — who values him more than anything in all her death — she’s more than just something Victor has to escape from: Her passions are received with empathy.
This appeal to outsider strength is partly accomplished in the visual method of making the living world drained of colour, while the dead world is bustling with life.
Pacing problems rear their head too frequently. The simplicity of Corpse Bride’s story drags during stretches when there’s not another level of action and humour in the backgrounds. Danny Elfman’s song soundtrack has its moments, but some of the numbers (especially at the beginning) have a tendency to sneak in without commanding attention.
Just Like Heaven
Corpse Bride’s ability to go somewhere fresh with ideas of life and death immediately places it above Just Like Heaven. The Reese Witherspoon comedy trades imagination for agreeability. Generations of teenagers may grow up loving comedies like Weird Science, Repo Man, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, even Napoleon Dynamite. But the success of middle-of-the-road tripe like this indicates they must have forgotten something while entering adulthood.
Witherspoon is Dr. Elizabeth Martinson, who makes work her whole life, only to realize what a waste that is when she’s hit by a truck and dies. Or is she even dead? The movie has no basic foundation of logic. Elizabeth’s nagging spirit haunts the apartment now inhabited by widowed David Abbott (Mark Ruffalo). Ruffalo’s scruffy-haired down-to-earth thing is key to his likability, but it’s a schtick we’ve seen too often. Witherspoon, on the other hand, has severely mangled her initial promise with another entirely phony “America’s sweetheart” role.
Just Like Heaven is missing the energized spirit essential to pop moviemaking. It’s not great for the same reason it isn’t terrible: It takes no risks.
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