Two years ago, it seemed like Tim Burton could do no wrong. Reteaming once again with frequent collaborator Johnny Depp, the pair took "Alice In Wonderland" to over a billion dollars worldwide, surfing the 3D wave in the aftermath of the success of "Avatar," and demonstrating once again that the pair were perfectly placed to bring the weird to the mainstream. A host of similar other projects were lined up for the filmmaker, but he settled on two that seemed to be close to his heart: an adaptation of supernatural soap "Dark Shadows" starring Depp, set for a plum summer release, and a stop-motion animated remake of the short film that made his name, "Frankenweenie."
Unfortunately (and despite "Frankenweenie" picking up the director's best reviews in years), 2012 has not treated Burton kindly: "Dark Shadows" was buried back in May, opening to a disappointing $30 million, and topping out at $80 million domestically. It did manage to make over $200 million worldwide, but given the film's reported $150 million cost, that's not going to make anyone happy, not least those who expected bigger things from the first Burton/Depp project after 'Alice.' And "Frankenweenie" might have been even more disappointing when it opened this weekend: at $11 million, it fell well behind both Burton's 2005 film "The Corpse Bride" and this year's similarly-themed "ParaNorman." Hell, when you take inflation and 3D subsidies into account, fewer people saw it than "The Nightmare Before Christmas" 18 years ago, and that was considered a flop at the time (it also played on half the screens, just to rub salt in the wound).
Now, the failure of each could be put down to a number of factors -- mostly involving poor timing. "Dark Shadows" was the first major release in the aftermath of "The Avengers," which had opened to record-breaking numbers a week earlier, and it was a property that meant little to audiences. "Frankenweenie" also got shafted by the competition, landing only a week after another horror-tinged (but much more kid-friendly) 3D animation, "Hotel Transylvania," which also broke records, and had both big names (Adam Sandler & co), and a bright, family-friendly look -- two things that "Frankenweenie" was lacking. Now toss in this summer's "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," another flop, produced by Burton and sold on his name, and the director is likely eager for 2012 to end.
Burton has had disappointments in the past, but for the first time since "Ed Wood" and "Mars Attacks" both underperformed in the mid 1990s, one starts to question whether one of the few brand-name directors around can still draw an audience in the same way. Have diminishing creative returns (everyone saw "Alice in Wonderland," but it's tough to find many who actually liked it) made the Burton aesthetic more of a warning than a promise?