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Disney In Depth: ‘Frankenweenie’ Strikes Out; Analyzing Tim Burton’s Latest Film
Brett Nachman   |  

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Frankenweenie, director Tim Burton’s stop-motion comedic horror spoof, opened to a disappointing $11.4 million last weekend, representing American audiences’ disinterest in a black-and-white animated film about a boy who resurrects his beloved dog. The supposed early financial failure, or rather letdown, underscores an even larger issue in the film community.

Sadly, moviegoers just fail to resonate with material, or at least check out content, that differs from the norm. This edition of Disney In Depth highlights the many issues that have faced Frankenweenie, a satisfactory film mixed with cleverness and heart, but shocked by disinterest.

Ever since it was announced Tim Burton would finally be translating this pet project – originally a live-action featurette – into a full-length animated feature, movie fans have been abuzz. Would Burton capably transform a witty concept, focused on bringing back to life a deceased canine, to an epic stop-motion romp lasting nearly 90 minutes? In many ways, yes, he has. This sentimental flick pays homage to the old-style terror films of the fifties, and unfortunately contains some decidedly off-putting stereotypes of the era. At its core, though, Frankenweenie centers on the loving relationship between a boy and his best friend. My Geeks of Doom colleague, Adam, offers a sound recap of Frankenweenie in his review.

However, Frankenweenie’s many odd elements, as well as extraneous factors, may have contributed to it performing so low in its opening weekend. For one, a plot involving reviving a deceased pet may not have only been viewed as disconcerting to younger viewers, but also to their parents. As much as we love our dogs, would we really aim to go that far? Now that’s Tim Burton’s style, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that idea, but a storyline revolving around that theme could have turned off some viewers.

"Frankenweenie" character Victor tries to resurrect his deceased dog, Sparky

Secondly, pitching a stop-motion feature is a hard enough sell to moviegoers accustomed to traditional two-dimensional and computer-generated animation. But to incorporate black-and-white context on top of that makes it even more challenging. Others may agree with that idea, but just consider what the box office numbers reveal. The highest domestic-grossing stop-motion film is 2000’s Chicken Run at around $106 million, with 2009’s Coraline as the second-highest with $75 million. Others released range in the $30 – $50 million range. As far as black-and-white, most animated features released in that style are independent features, with very low grosses. Even modern-day live-action movies filmed in black-and-white, such as Good Night and Good Luck and The Artist, while well received, failed to rake in much dough. Maybe an apples-to-oranges comparison, but the non-color medium could deter some viewers.

Furthermore, we cannot ignore that a family-friendly animated feature was released one mere week before Frankenweenie: Sony’s Hotel Transylvania. Certainly, every now and then a pair of animated films debut within that constricted a time period, but how often are they similarly-themed? Both focus on haunted characters in somewhat-eerie atmospheres. Despite the former being a true comedy, the amount of connections may have contributed to undermining Frankenweenie. The broad audience appeal of Transylvania, and lack of competitive options in the marketplace, helped ensure that film its success with a $42 million opening. As for Frankenweenie, it just served as an afterthought for families who were not opting to see Transylvania for a second helping.

Yet Disney has been marketing Frankenweenie with so much effort and conviction, that it remains surprising the attempts have not worked in their favor. At both the Disney Store and the Disney theme parks, Frankenweenie merchandise is stocked in full force on the shelves and selling quite well, according to Jim Hill of the Magical Definition podcast. At Disney California Adventure Park, a special exhibit and 4-D preview of the film have attempted to draw interest. The Tim Burton creation is also screened in IMAX 3D, an additional fiscal boon, as those tickets charge higher prices. The Halloween tie-in should have also lured more viewers. Regrettably, promoting a picture only goes so far to boosting up box office figures.

"Frankenweenie" character Sparky

Could the company have sensed Frankenweenie would flop? Earlier this August, Disney removed its involvement from Henry Selick’s latest project, a stop-motion picture that would have been released in October 2013. Admittedly Frankenweenie and this project share little in common other than the stop-motion element, but the timing of its “cancellation” suggests that either the storyline was not what the studio had in mind, or that they lacked confidence in the style. If you recall, Disney parted with Robert Zemeckis’ ImageMovers prior to the release of the massive motion-capture flop Mars Needs Moms, though the studio had been developing a new version of Yellow Submarine, but that didn’t work out either. Are we seeing history repeat itself? Could Frankenweenie underperforming lead to a disassociation between Disney and Tim Burton?

Odds are, no. Without a doubt, the Mouse House and Burton had a more turbulent relationship in the 1980s after Burton was fired for filming the costly 1984 live-action Frankenweenie, but look at where they are now. Disney provided Burton a platform to share his story at a much more monumental and gratifying scale, after already directing the humongous financial behemoth that was 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, earning over $1 billion worldwide. Luckily, 2012’s Frankenweenie was relatively inexpensive, at just under $40 million, so the feature will likely make back its budget – internationally, at the very least. No success story like Alice, but at least no fiscal headache like John Carter.

So the question remains. What will it take for audiences to check out Frankenweenie? Perhaps it will require time to take its course, and Frankenweenie could be a huge cult hit once it hits networks like ABC Family in a few years. We all know The Nightmare Before Christmas did not break out as a sensation until years later. Sometimes audiences find certain films’ value far after their openings, as in the case of another Disney Halloween example, Hocus Pocus, so potentially that is what awaits for Frankenweenie. Time.

The choice is yours. Support Frankenweenie, or wait until its home release. If you are like me, you will appreciate having checked out the tender, though clumsily-paced feature in theaters. I encourage you to help Sparky and Victor out, and to see the hilarious Mr. Whiskers in his big-screen glory. You will never look at the omens of cats the same way again, as seen in the clip below.

This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Return back next week for another edition of Disney In Depth. Catch alerts for upcoming editions of the column by following me on Twitter. Have a good week!

  • Justin

    I think people should appreciate the film more. It looks great! But I really wish Disney would continue the Beauty and the Beast franchise. I love the Enchanted Christmas. Amazing.

  • Daniel

    Is saw Frankenweenie and loved it. The reviews have been stellar, 86% on Rotten tomotoes. The movie only cost 39 mil so Disney will make a profit eventually on it. I think this is one of those little movies destined to become a cult classic..

  • Jay jay

    Two things that astound me:

    1) nobody has made a live action/CG Pokèmon film.

    2) Disney hasn’t resurrected their Zorro franchise, or even wrestled the rights away from Tri Star.

  • Chris Thorne

    Wait, you are putting the fault of the first weekend of a Tim Burton film at the VIEWERS feet? Maybe it is the lackluster acceptance of Burton’s previous films like ‘Alice’. He is not the norm and maybe he is just a niche market filmmaker. That doesn’t make him a bad guy and the fault of that is surely not the public’s. Every film he makes isn’t ‘Nightmare’. Maybe theatres weren’t the best format for this, there are a lot of decisions that led to this lackluster opening and many of them marketing and Burton reputation. I like Burton’s films but that being said, this isn’t a film I am big on seeing. Is that MY fault??

  • Samhain

    It will take someone else to do these stop motion movies besides Tim Burton . . . Yeah I know I seem to be one of the few that can’t seem to appreciate his movies it seems like, but I just don’t care for his bland art style, character creation/development, and story telling, and personally would be more interested in seeing Disney give someone else backing instead of him.

  • Fred

    I agree.

  • Pemzini

    I’ve waited years for the release and when I finally saw it, it was everything I hoped for! I can’t see why people can’t make themselves give a chance to something different (like black and white stop motion).

    But! I’ve also heard a lot of people are holding off until Halloween night to see Frankenweenie. So maybe it might rake in some more money then. I hope so! >,<

  • http://twitter.com/bnachmanreports Brett Nachman

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Frankenweenie becomes a cult favorite as well!

  • http://twitter.com/bnachmanreports Brett Nachman

    Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorites, too, Justin.

  • http://twitter.com/bnachmanreports Brett Nachman

    Yeah, the Zorro franchise could be a great Disney brand.

  • http://twitter.com/bnachmanreports Brett Nachman

    Tim Burton’s style is certainly an acquired taste, and I can appreciate your perspective as well.

  • http://twitter.com/bnachmanreports Brett Nachman

    At least you will be able to catch Frankenweenie on home release in just a few days!

  • http://twitter.com/bnachmanreports Brett Nachman

    Thanks for your thoughts, Chris. Many factors account for why Frankenweenie may not have resonated with audiences, in terms of box office gross for its first weekend. Certainly, you make a good point that his films are very niche, and that may have contributed to its performance.

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