Victor (Johnny Depp) is the son of nouveau-riche fish merchants and Victoria (Emily Watson) is the daughter of aristocrats who are down to their last dollar. Their upcoming marriage will give legitimacy to Victor’s parents while savings Victoria’s from the indignity of poverty. But Victor and Victoria have yet to meet – and neither are keen on marrying a stranger. All that changes when they finally do clap eyes on each other, instantly falling head over heels.
True love doesn’t make Victor any more facile with words, so when he fumbles his way through the rehearsal, he’s admonished to the woods to practise until perfect. Unfortunately, he unknowingly recites his vows to the corpse of a woman murdered on the night she was to elope, and Emily (Helena Bonham Carter) rises from the dead to claim him as her husband, and drag him down to the Land of the Dead.
Victor is mortified, as he should be – will he ever make it back up to the Land of the Living to reclaim the woman who holds his heart?
Tim Burton breathed his magic into this 19th century Russian folk tale, co-directing on the tails of Big Fish, and simultaneously with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He held the vision, and co-director Mike Johnson followed up with the crew, making sure the tone and emotion were realized.
A beautiful example of stop-motion, the puppets themselves, built by Mackinnon and Saunders, were about 17 inches tall and animated on sets built three to four feet off the ground with trap doors allowing animators access to the sets’ surfaces to manipulate the puppets. Victor, Victoria and Emily were outfitted with heads the size of golf balls that contained special gearing to allow the animators to manipulate individual parts of the puppets’ faces.
Burton, on casting Johnny Depp in both movies he was working on at once: “It was weird because we were doing both at the same time. He was Willy Wonka by day and Victor by night so it might have been a little schizophrenic for him. But he’s great. It’s the first animated movie he’s done and he’s always into a challenge. We just treat it like fun and a creative process. Again, that’s the joy of working with him. He’s kind of up for anything. He just always adds something to it. The amazing thing is all the actors never worked [together]. They were never in a room together, so they were all doing their voices, except for Albert [Finney] and Joanna [Lumley] did a few scenes together, everybody else was separate. They were all kind of working in a vacuum, which was interesting. That’s the thing that I felt ended up so beautifully, that their performances really meshed together. So he was very canny, as they all were, about trying to find the right tone and making it work while not being in the same room with each other.”
Like the best of Burton, this is macabre yet whimsical, and the visuals here are still arresting today. It’s definitely worth digging out for Halloween, and for whenever.