The Brothers Grimm and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (review)

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Into the Woods and Under the Ground

The thing I really love about Terry Gilliam is how fearless he is. His movies are glorious hodgepodges of everything that fascinates and scares him, and he just keeps cramming anxieties and audacities and myths and symbols and jokes and tassels and cherries on top until you just about can’t breathe anymore and you hardly know where to look onscreen and you have to get let it wash over you, this cinematic experience. Or not. Gilliam doesn’t seem to care about box office, which is good, because the box office doesn’t seen to care for him, too often (The Brothers Grimm hasn’t even yet earned back half its budget). It’s simply too much for many people, I suspect, that Gilliam’s movies aren’t mere throwaway diversions about rogue cops avenging their partners or cute dogs that rescue people or whatever, that they plug themselves right into the collective psyche and gleefully pull out the stuffing… or maybe that they unplug you from the Matrix you’re always plugged into and ask you to question things you take for granted.
Like religion and superstition and just, you know, all the assumptions about what’s true and what’s false and what’s worth worrying about. Not that The Brothers Grimm is about these things on the surface: it’s about Will and Jacob and how they’re kinda Enlightenment-era fake con-artist ghostbusters, saving superstitious villagers from their own gullibility and relieving them of the burden of their silver, until they come across an actual spook that they have to actually battle, because, you know, they took the nice people’s money already. They’re not bad guys, not really, Will (Matt Damon: Ocean’s Twelve, The Bourne Supremacy) and Jacob (Heath Ledger: Lords of Dogtown, The Order) — they’re just sorta a little more Enlightened than the peasants. Or are they?

See, and this is the really brilliant thing in particular about this particular Gilliam film: Will and Jacob, for all that they’re living in like 1803 or whatever, are us. They’re men of reason and logic (like our culture is trying to be reasonable and logical, even if some superstitious folks keep trying to inject their Flying Spaghetti Monster fantasies, kinda like how Jacob does sorta believe in magic, or would if he could give himself over entirely to it without sacrificing his intellectual integrity). So of course they don’t believe in ghosts, but they’ve lost something else, too, a connection to the really elemental. The real villain here isn’t the magical immortal evil queen (Monica Bellucci: The Passion of the Christ, The Matrix Revolutions) — though of course she’s not very nice at all — but, yup, Christianity. Yeah, some Christians are upset about this, but you can’t deny the truth: Christianity did its damnedest to supplant earlier, older pagan beliefs, there’s no question about that, and many Christians would say that’s a good thing.

Anyway, Will and Jacob have forgotten, as Christianity has hoped would happen, about the power of the earth and the forest and the human connection to nature and all that. And Gilliam would, perhaps subconsciously, like to remind us that the primitive hold on the imagination of the deep dark words isn’t necessarily a bad thing or something that must be left behind, that we can be reasonable and logical and modern and all and still respect the cock, so to speak, and acknowledge its power. Look, the woods here in The Brothers Grimm, into which they have to venture in order to destroy the bad stuff and discover themselves, ain’t no real forest: it’s the mythical woods of the collective imagination, scary and primal, and the conquering of the fear of which is essential to asserting ourselves as creatures of reason and logic. It’s yin-yang thing, a recognition of ourselves as subject to ancient forces and also capable of overcoming them.

“And then the Christians invaded,” one character says here, and took away the idea of the sacredness of the forest. And then the corrupt bureaucrat played by Jonathan Pryce (De-Lovely, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) exhorts the villagers to “vanquish your fears — burn the forest.” Which is pretty telling.

Undead can dance
I’m not saying The Brother Grimm isn’t a mess. It is. But it’s a wonderful, delicious, gratifying mess, like your mother let you make building tents out of blankets and chairs in the living room when you were a kid. It’s a fun, exploratory mess, the kind of mess you need to make in order to figure stuff out.

Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride isn’t any kind of mess, and I kinda wish it was. If I’d never seen The Nightmare Before Christmas, I’ve no doubt I’d be raving about how extraordinarily imaginative and beautifully designed Corpse Bride is. And it is. It’s just that I’ve seen it all before already, in Nightmare, that last stop-motion-animated film Burton undertook. It’s enough to make you wonder how limited Burton’s imagination might actually be — has he been fooling us all these years? Johnny Depp’s (Finding Neverland) Victor Van Dort is a tall, gaunt drink of water, like Jack Skellington, except he’s got a skeleton dog instead of a ghost dog, and the Bride (the voice of Helena Bonham Carter: Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) is Sally, with bits falling off and longing for love with all her decomposed heart. The big song about the wedding between Victor and the wife his parents have arranged for him, Victoria (the voice of Emily Watson: Punch-Drunk Love), sounds an awful lot like “Making Christmas,” and dammit, I already know that song by heart. I want something new. Sure, Victor is a lot more nebbishy than confused but confident Jack is, but Corpse Bride doesn’t even use Depp to any great advantage. If a character doesn’t need to be played by Johnny Depp, then why hire him?

Yes, it’s true that the sequence in which Victor, while bucking himself up for the wedding to Victoria during a walk in the woods rehearsing his lines for the ceremony, accidentally hitches himself to a corpse bride is really spectacular, the undead girl rising from the ground with an elemental power like some sort of demented metaphor for marriage equaling death for men. But is that enough? Corpse Bride is… fine. It’s fine. But is that enough? After the disappointment of Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I need more than “fine” to restore my faith in Burton.

The Brothers Grimm
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated PG-13 for violence, frightening sequences and brief suggestive material
official site | IMDB

Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated PG for some scary images and action, and brief mild language
official site | IMDB

Watch The Brothers Grimm online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

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