In the race for this year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar, Disney is hoping to pull off a rare feat and grab 3 of the 5 nominations: for their summer Pixar hit Brave, the upcoming holiday release Wreck-It Ralph (November 2) and Tim Burton‘s Frankenweenie. But will the disappointing box office for the latter hurt its chances at landing a nomination for Burton in the category? Grossing only $24 million since its domestic release October 5th, Frankenweenie’s tepid box office receipts are a head-scratcher. It’s the leading animated film in terms of critical reviews at Rotten Tomatoes this year with an 88% Fresh rating. Oversaturation of other horror-themed animated features like Focus Features’ ParaNorman and Sony’s hit Hotel Transylvania could be a factor in the under-performance for Frankenweenie. For Burton it may be his most personal project as he told me on the phone from London this morning so its particularly frustrating that it is not clicking in a bigger way at the box office.
“I don’t really know why. I can never predict from the beginning of my career. Any of them can go one way or the other. When people see it they seem to like it and Disney has been supportive of it so I can’t really fault anything. I don’t really know,” he said. “The Nightmare Before Christmas in a weird way was similar. It didn’t really do anything (at the box office) but it sort of stayed around,” he said of the first animated feature he produced in 1993 (it was directed by Henry Selick) which has become a perennial Halloween-time fixture. His own animated feature directorial effort Corpse Bride (2005) earned him an Oscar nomination in the feature animation category and the clever stop motion wonders of Frankenweenie could well do the same.
So why has this 3D stop-motion black and white toon not been drawing the big family crowds Disney is accustomed to? “The fears of black and white? The fears that it is too scary? Nobody who has seen the movie goes ‘oh we didn’t like the black and white or it was too scary’ and Disney was behind it. It’s just one of those weird things. It is not an exact science,” said Burton. “It is only upsetting for me in the sense where I feel like, and I can’t say this about all my films I have worked on, but I like the movie and I like all the work people put into it. It’s all those things, the stop motion, all those things can continue in some way. I remember a while back when computer animation came in with Pixar and people said ‘we’re not going to do anymore drawn animation films and you go ‘ooh, ouch’. That’s a bit of concern always in the back of your mind. We’ll see what happens. Hopefully the movie will find a life somewhere, some distant planet.”
The film was inspired by Burton’s live-action featurette of the same name about a boy who brings his dead pet back to life. Burton made the short in 1984 but it was barely seen and the next year he began his extraordinarily successful feature film career. But the idea never left him. “Over the years going back to the original drawings and the stop-motion process it just seemed like a natural fit. I would have been very nervous about just expanding the short. But it became a very different process and it was fun to explore all those other memories of that time for me. I can’t think of any other project where I put it though such memory, not only with the dog but extending to certain kids I know and teachers and feelings and movies,” he said.
Burton is sanguine about the box office and says he remembers that when they made Nightmare it was such an oddity the studio wasn’t even going to put out a trailer at the time. “I have had a strange life and career that way. I am surprised if something is successful, I am surprised if it is a failure, I am always surprised. I have never really been able to predict or target things like that. Like I said hopefully it will have its life somewhere someday.” He next heads to France, Japan and Korea among other countries for the international launch of the film which had a successful European debut Wednesday as the opening night attraction of the London Film Festival.
As for another possible Oscar nomination Burton says he doesn’t like to think too much about it. This weekend he and his significant other Helena Bonham Carter are receiving the prestigious BFI Fellowship Award from the British Film Institute. He says he is happy to get it. “You don’t get many things so it is quite an honor. Obviously we have made several films here. I think Christopher Lee is going to give it to me which makes it really special. It’s an amazing surprise,” he said.
And — box office hit or not — it probably won’t be the last we will be seeing of Burton on the awards circuit this year.