I could tell things weren’t going swimmingly for “Frankenweenie” this weekend when I could use a single hand to count the responses to our post inviting your thoughts on the film. For whatever reason, and not for lack of critical enthusiasm, Tim Burton’s peculiarly personal stop-motion animated feature just hadn’t caught the public’s imagination, and the figures last night made for discouraging reading: after opening wide in over 3000 theaters, “Frankenweenie” limped into fifth place with $11.4 million, less than half of what rival Halloween-friendly animation “Hotel Transylviania” managed to gross in its second weekend. International box office will surely be required to clear a budget of $39 million.
I’m no box office analyst, but as disappointed as I am by this tepid reception for a lovingly made film that deserves an audience, I’m hardly surprised. As much as Disney tried to underline Burton’s money-raking “Alice in Wonderland” credentials in the marketing, “Frankenweenie” is a tough sell: a stylized, macabre and boldly black-and-white mosaic homage to vintage horror/monster movies, it’s a film for the director’s devotees who likely loathed “Alice.”
Disney are to be congratulated on stumping up for what is essentially an auteur piece, but if they thought it was going to gross as much as “Corpse Bride” — which, in addition to being in color, boasted to marquee appeal of Johnny Depp — they were kidding themselves. Certainly, the warmly-reviewed film hasn’t done anyone’s reputation any harm: in Burton’s case, it’s positively salvaged it after the frosty critical reception for “Alice” (for all its millions) and “Dark Shadows.” The question now is whether Academy voters will admire the artistic commitment evident in “Frankenweenie,” or hold the film’s commercial performance against it.
With healthier box office, the film would comfortably be in the driver’s seat for the Best Animated Feature Oscar in a year that hasn’t delivered a true phenomenon in the medium. Pixar were widely deemed to be treading water with “Brave,” well-liked as it is; “Paranorman” has some ardent champions, but not everyone seems to get it; we’re still waiting on “Rise of the Guardians.”
“Frankenweenie” has the potentially winning combination of exquisite craft, hip but not alienating humor and a retro aesthetic and sensibility that could inspire a feeling of protectiveness in some voters; better yet, it gives them a chance to honor a major filmmaker who may well never win an Oscar in a major category. It’s worth noting that, on the rare occasions Pixar hasn’t triumphed in this category since its inception in 2001, the Academy has often opted for a filmmaker who’s a known quantity: Gore Verbinski for “Rango,” George Miller for “Happy Feet,” Hayao Miyazaki for “Spirited Away,” even the three-time Oscar-winners behind “Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit” — who beat Burton the last time has was up for one of these.
That’s all good news, but the fact remains that this is an Oscar category that overwhelmingly favors blockbusters. The average Stateside gross of a Best Animated Feature winner is around $218 million, while of 11 previous winners, only two have totals below nine figures: “Spirited Away,” an anomalous art-film victor that did well to reach $10 million, and “Wallace & Gromit,” still a tidy little underdog performer with $56 million. (It was narrowly the highest-grossing nominee that year.)
Perhaps not coincidentally, they’re also the only two past winners to veer from the slick computer animation that is the norm these days: with a similar handmade appeal, “Frankenweenie” will be going after the same nostalgia vote that those films successfully chased, though neither had to contend with the faint stigma of box office disappointment. It’d be nice to see this puppy come through on its own charms.