Tim Burton created a masterpiece, and it’s a stiff. Or at least that’s how it’s going to be viewed by those who consider box-office returns to be the only measure of a film’s success.
The picture is “Frankenweenie” and it did only $11.4 million at the box office last weekend. That put it far behind “Hotel Transylvania” in the Halloween animation competition even though “Frankenweenie” is, by far, the superior film.
The performance of “Frankenweenie” has created plenty of movie industry hand-wringing, questioning whether Burton’s “brand” has lost its luster, speculating that the picture will not return its cost of production and wondering why Disney released it just a week after “Hotel Transylvania,” which glutted the animation market.
Those easily addressed concerns say plenty about the world of movies today. It’s all about marketing and money and not about the movies themselves.
As to whether Burton’s brand has diminished, the “Frankenweenie” opening is about $8 million less than that of 2005’s “Corpse Bride,” a significant drop. But with “Hotel Transylvania,” a hit with the family/animation crowd and drawing the dollars there, it’s impossible to determine the power of Burton’s brand.
As for the concerns of making back production costs, too bad, so sad. That’s always a risk and, in the end, nearly every movie pays for itself. It just might not bring in barrels of money to the studios, producers and exhibitors.
As for going up against “Hotel Transylvania,” the kids monster comedy wasn’t expected to perform as well as it has at the box office. It’s made $76 million in two weeks of release, connecting via an entertaining, formulaic story and fun 3-D animation. And it’s never close to scary.
“Frankenweenie” is none of the above -- except for the entertaining part. Its story is original, a smart take on “Frankenstein” with a boy named Victor bringing his run-over dog, Sparky, back to life and eventually creating reanimated havoc on his small town.
Its animation, while in 3-D, is black and white and stop motion. Its characters are highly stylized -- people with big eyes and pointed chins -- and, in the case of a giant turtle that looks like Godzilla, could be frightening.
As with the best Burton, “Frankenweenie” is creepy with a few punches of humor. It’s also an homage to classic horror films. So, for example, when the electrified Sparky touches noses with the poodle next door, white lightning bolts appear in her piled high black hair -- she’s “Bride of Frankenstein.”
That connection is made even more explicit with the name of the poodle’s owner -- Elsa, as in Elsa Lanchester, who played the Bride in the 1932 Universal classic. With the mayor of the town named Van Helsing, the aforementioned Godzilla connection and a science teacher who looks something like Vincent Price, “Frankenweenie” ia packed full of references for fans of classic horror.
But that’s not anything the preschool through middle school animation crowd is going to get, or could possibly care about. Nor is it likely to be missed by those a decade older -- unless they’re horror fans, and not scary pictures of the slasher variety.
Black and white also likely scares off some viewers as does the stop motion, which is an ancient film-based technique. But it is the use and mastery of the latter that makes “Frankenweenie” a captivating visual experience and the palette again puts the film in context with the classics.
Burton hasn’t lost anything. Nor should “Frankenweenie” be seen as a disaster. It is, instead, a film that in today’s dumbed down movie environment, is only going to reach a select audience.