As a young filmmaker, Tim Burton found great success both critically and commercially with Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and his 1989 version of Batman. Since leaving that franchise behind after 1992's Batman Returns, Burton has found steady footing by building his niche and cultivating his own sub-culture of fans.
Post-Batman, Burton moved onto Ed Wood in 1994. Despite its relative stature on his resume today, the film was a huge financial bust making $5.9 million against an $18 million total budget. From there, 1996's Mars Attacks! improved by essentially grossing its budget back, but still provided another financial stumble.
Things started to turn around again in 1999, though. Sleepy Hollow reunited Burton with Johnny Depp for the first time in five years and went on to bank $206.1 million against a $105 million budget. But it was 2001's Planet of the Apes remake that really changed things: despite critical and audience disappointment, the sci-fi retelling took in over $362 million worldwide against a $150 million budget. That makes it one of Burton's more profitable movies even to this day.
Excluding 2003's lower profile Big Fish, another financial flop that was and is well-regarded among Burton's fans, a streak of very successful films was beginning. In 2005, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory more than doubled its $210 million combined budget at the box office while Corpse Bride was a modest success that managed to break even. Two years later, Sweeney Todd rode huge international success on its way to a $152.5 million global tally (nearly double its combined budget). And of course, 2010's Alice In Wonderland became a worldwide blockbuster and Burton's highest grosser to-date both domestically and worldwide.
The streak ended earlier in 2012, though, when Dark Shadows was met with critical backlash and a lack of mainstream interest for an adaptation of a decades-old gothic soap opera. The flick ended up pulling over $236 million worldwide thanks to a strong international tally, but with the combined budget of $175 million, Shadows still turned out to be a financial disappointment.
The question now is whether or not Frankenweenie can turn things back around for Burton. The film marks his third venture with the Mouse House in his career, with the first being Ed Wood and the second being Alice. Those box office performers landed on opposite ends of the spectrum, and the fact that Alice's success hinged just as much (or more) on Johnny Depp's involvement (plus the familiarity of the classic tale and aid from 3D premium prices) means expectations for Frankenweenie should again be kept on the conservative end.
Last weekend's breakout family movie, Hotel Transylvania, will also be an important factor. Kids of today's generation tend to flock toward computer animation and lose interest in the traditional styles (hand-drawn and stop-motion, e.g.). Its an unfortunate disadvantage for Frankenweenie to have to overcome, but that's the age we live in now. Being a black-and-white film could potentially only serve to disinterest kids even more.
The strengths of Frankenweenie, however, might rest in the hands of Burton's older audience. But even that gives us pause. Looking at the history of non-traditional and/or "darker" animated movies, the box office results haven't been noteworthy: although cut from the computer-animated cloth, August's ParaNorman failed to gain traction with families due to its darker themes and has grossed only $86.4 million worldwide against its $83 million budget.
Another example from 2012: The Pirates! Band of Misfits opened to a soft $11.1 million domestically and topped out with just over $31 million. The international tally did its part to push the global cume up to $122.1 million, but the Stateside performance was low enough to keep it from clear profitability.
Other stop-motion and/or "darker" animation victims: 2009's 9 ($45.8 million gross vs. $52 million budget), 2008's Igor ($30.6 million gross vs. $48 million budget), and 2006's Monster House ($140.2 million gross vs. $120 million budget).
The exceptions: 2009's Coraline banked $121.7 million worldwide -- including $75.3 million domestically -- against its $80 million budget. That film was computer-animated and built upon its modest $16.9 million domestic opening. 2005's Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit didn't make many waves in North America ($56.1 million), but it did bank almost $193 million worldwide with a production budget of just $30 million (advertising costs not available at the time of writing).
The biggest domestic stop-motion hit in recent memory is easily 2000's Chicken Run. Boasting an all-star cast led by Mel Gibson, that flick was one of the summer's surprise hits that year as it made $106.8 million and $224.8 million around the globe The combined budget was just $73 million.
A critical point here is the lack of breakout successes for non-traditional and non-computer animation in North America. Chicken Run's success came at a time when CG hadn't quite yet dominated the imaginations of kids (when Pixar was the only game in town) and, as noted, Coraline's darker themes were offset by its CG nature and strong word of mouth.
Can Tim Burton's built-in audience and personal success provide enough to overcome these disadvantages for Frankenweenie?
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The Frankenweenie theatrical trailer: