The Nightmare Before Marriage

Burton and the puppet factory: The director with his latest creations
Warner Bros.

Toronto, Ontario--

Never mind that it's a kids' movie animated with puppets in stop-motion: A man's deathly fear of marriage hasn't often been played out as literally as it is in Tim Burton's Corpse Bride. Wandering the woods at night, nervously rehearsing the vows he's expected to recite for his arranged marriage to sweet but ordinary Victoria, the eternally long-faced Victor is suddenly visited by a blue-skinned and decaying cadaver whose mistaken "I do" rather vividly corroborates his view of being hitched as a kind of walking death. Yet the Corpse Bride (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter), unlike our hero's intended, knows how to have a good time: With what's left of her arm, she yanks shy Victor (Johnny Depp) to an afterparty in the Land of the Dead, where singing and dancing skeletons manage to put a spring in the sad sack's step. Later, the piano-loving Victor discovers that he and the nimble-boned Corpse Bride make beautiful music together. How in hell will this guy return "upstairs" to the mere mortal Victoria (Emily Watson), who couldn't play a decent duet if her life depended on it?

"The love triangle was the trickiest thing in the movie," says Burton, who has his feet up on a chair in his Toronto hotel room, seemingly relaxed in the knowledge that he pulled it off. "You don't want to make any of the [three characters] unlikable, you know? But the Corpse Bride is definitely more energetic, whereas Victoria comes from this world that's more repressed. That was a dynamic that we wanted to show--the tension, in that Victorian sense, of people being kept apart or pushed together, of everything being organized and arranged, the bureaucracy of life. Relationships are always a mixture of things: love, hope, passion, loss, sadness. The relationship that survives at the end of this movie is in a sort of unknown state--which is maybe not a happy ending exactly, but it's..." Burton pauses to find the right word. "It's the truth."

Burton is one of a tiny handful of A-list Hollywood directors who continue to make personal films. Coinciding with Burton's commitment to Bonham Carter (they're not married) and his new parenthood (their son Billy is two years old), his three most recent movies--Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Corpse Bride (the new film is co-directed by Mike Johnson)--are all principally concerned with relationships as they relate to the risks and rewards of adult responsibility. The films' conclusions are palpably ambivalent--honest, that is--to a degree that's rare and even thrilling by current mainstream standards. Charlie, though somehow not to the detriment of a gigantic worldwide gross, leaves the workaholic loner Willy Wonka sitting awkwardly at the dinner table of his new surrogate family; only when he has an entrepreneurial idea to share with the kid who'll inherit his kingdom (and maybe his conflicts) does the chocolatier catch a buzz.

"You're very affected by your early life," says Burton, whose Seussian pair of red and white striped socks appears to prove the point. "I think if you've ever had that feeling of loneliness, of being an outsider or whatever, it doesn't leave you. You can be happy or successful or whatever, but that thing still stays inside you."

This is probably the time to mention that Burton and Bonham Carter--"happy or successful or whatever" by all accounts--reside in separate houses connected by a long hallway. (If such an architectural option were open to every married couple, would there be no need for divorce?) The haunting final image of Corpse Bride, as ambiguous as Big Fish's, is that of a couple alone together, at once entwined and isolated by forces even greater than life and death.

I ask Burton if it was weird to collaborate with his lover on a weird movie about love. "Oh, it was fine," he says. "Not as difficult as you might think. I'm very lucky because before I met her, she had done a lot of movies--so it's not like we're in competition with each other. We've been through enough separately, so it's actually quite easy."

And what about two-year-old Billy, who reportedly adores Corpse Bride? Is there anything that would scare him? Here, the director's conclusion is definitive: "Only his parents."

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