Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, which tells the story of a man trapped in the underworld after accidentally marrying a corpse, has long been remembered for its beautiful animation and moving plot, and has recently been the subject of nostalgic posts and reflections online. Beyond the surface, though, Corpse Bride portrays a young man’s coming-of-age poignantly and with deep symbolism.
This analysis will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t watched the movie, I highly recommend that you do so.
Corpse Bride opens with two families preparing for the arranged marriage of their children. The main character, Victor, feels uneasy about the event, which has been completely decided for him by his parents. After meeting his betrothed, Victoria, (just in case you couldn’t tell, this movie takes place in the Victorian time period), Victor warms up to the idea of marrying her, but is still paralyzed with nerves about the ceremony. While practicing his vows with Victoria in the presence of both families, Victor repeatedly blunders his way through the ceremony. When he accidentally drops a lighted candle on the dress of Victoria’s mother, infuriating his future in-laws and the priest, he runs away, distraught. At this point, Victor is too terrified of his own inadequacies to face his impending marriage. He is still a child, and like a child, he runs away when he gets into trouble.
Alone in the winter forest, Victor practices his vows by himself until he triumphantly recites all his lines perfectly. In an inspired moment, he slips Victoria’s ring onto what he believes is a twig, but is actually a human finger. He has just said his vows to a corpse, Emily, who rises out of the ground and announces, “I do.” Victor then does, again, what all frightened children do. He runs away.
Emily, however, transports Victor to the underworld. The setting carries deep significance. Coming of age is a type of death: childish ignorance and irresponsibility are permanently left behind as the individual learns what it means to grow up. This can be terrifying, which Victor fully experiences. He subconsciously realizes that he has to leave a part of himself behind, and he is not ready to do so. He attempts repeatedly to escape an overjoyed Emily, who has quickly fallen in love with him. He eventually manipulates her into taking him back to visit the living world “together.” There, Victor abandons Emily to visit Victoria, confess his love to her, and explain his situation. A jealous Emily summons Victor back to the underworld, where she tearfully confronts Victor about seeing “the other woman.” Victor insists that Emily is the other woman, not Victoria, and eventually lashes out, saying that it was a mistake and that he would never marry her. In this scene, Victor is angry at his situation and at himself for causing it. He refuses to honor his commitment to Emily or acknowledge his part in causing their union.
Realizing his mistake, Victor apologizes to Emily, and the two grow closer. Eventually, Victor overhears a conversation between Emily and an elder that rules the underworld, in which the elder reveals that their marriage is not valid, since Victor is alive and Emily is dead. To truly be married, Victor and Emily must say their vows again, and Victor must die at the end. Emily protests, but Victor interrupts the conversation to tell her he will go through with the ceremony. The couple, as well as a large party of corpses, return to the living world for the marriage. Only after Victor has accepted the death of his childhood is he ready to return to the new life of adulthood.
Victoria appears at the wedding, prompting Emily to call off the wedding as she realizes the love that Victor and Victoria have for each other. After an altercation with Lord Barkis, who had murdered Emily and forced Victoria to marry him, results in Barkis’s death, Emily is finally able to move on, free from her past. She begins to leave Victor and Victoria, but Victor follows her, acknowledging that he had made a promise to her. This clearly shows him in his final, mature state, ready to follow through on his word. Emily tells him that he kept his promise by setting her free, and departs from the earthly world for good. Victor, who has chosen to become a man that accepts responsibility, is now ready to marry Victoria and face the rest of his adult life by her side.