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Monkeybone   D+

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Henry Selick
Writer: Sam Hamm (based on the graphic novel Dark Town by Kaja Blackley)
Cast: Brendan Frasier, Bridget Fonda, Chris Kattan, Whoopi Goldberg, Giancarlo Esposito, Rose McGowan, John Turturro.

Review by Rob Vaux

I wanted to like Monkeybone. I tried very hard to get into its anarchic spirit. The previews lent the feeling of Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam at their best -- a cackling work of iconoclasm resolutely marching to its own funky beat. The film was directed by Henry Selick, the stop motion director who made the thoroughly delightful Nightmare Before Christmas and the intermittently delightful James and the Giant Peach. But somewhere along the line, Monkeybone left out an essential element. At some point, a vital spark was lost. Whatever it was, it robbed the results of any real coherence, turning what could have been a fun-filled romp into a depressing mess.

Burton's spirit looms large over the proceedings; at times, Monkeybone plays a lot like his Beetlejuice. That earlier film managed to give live action a feeling of animation, and it's clear that Selick wants to do the same thing here. But he lacks the proper touch to pull it off; you can tell his heart lies in animation, and the more or less live-action story here just doesn't fit him well. The protagonist is a repressed cartoonist named Stu Miley (Brendan Frasier) whose simian creation -- an extension of his own id called Monkeybone -- is on the verge of becoming a huge hit. Then he suffers a bizarre accident which lands his body in a coma and his mind in a bizarre realm called Down Town -- a sort of twisted carnival where unconscious patients languish until revived or killed. Populated by the freakish denizens of human nightmares, Down Town also houses Stu's cartoon creation, who headlines at a local bar. Monkeybone has dark plans for his creator, and the citizens of Down Town are happy to help out. Stu is a big celebrity among them, you see (his nightmares are apparently quite entertaining) and they want to use his body to keep the bad mojo flowing.

In visual terms, Down Town is striking, easily the best part of the film. Selick and his production team have created a legitimately disturbing world of unique images and bizarre characters. Unfortunately, the imagination has gone completely into the trappings, without any thought given to the concepts behind them. Worlds like these need a certain logic to function: ground rules, focus, an internal consistency that defines their weirdness. Selick seems convinced that he can get by with strange for the sake of strangeness, which renders his creation confused and frustrating.

The problem gets larger when we shift back to the "real world," which Selick has no idea how to handle at all. The banal trappings of Stu's house and hospital room can't help but pale in comparison to Down Town, but Selick tries his best to match them, first with garish Monkeybone toys, then with some embarrassing comedy bits, and finally with an ill-conceived chase involving a revived organ donor (Chris Kattan) and his doctors. These trappings are as painful as Down Town is disturbing, and leave a sour taste in the mouth. A uniformly banal cast doesn't help matters either; Frasier's been much better in much funnier films and Fonda has little to do but look concerned. Whoopi Goldberg makes a perplexing cameo as Death that never goes anywhere, and while John Turturro has a ball as the voice of Monkeybone, he isn't around nearly often enough to make things worthwhile. A cast with more pep and energy could have elevated the material to a higher level. As it is, they struggle just to register on-screen.

The script shows signs of life from time to time: there's some clever jokes here and there, and the film's Freudian trappings clearly have rich potential. Unfortunately, Monkeybone too often eschews such wit in favor of crude bathroom humor, and the film's comic timing never hits its stride. Without a better foundation, the film's fragile efforts at iconoclastic humor fall dreadfully short.

I'm sure there are people out there who will enjoy Monkeybone -- a few folks were laughing hard at the screening I attended, and if you're on the film's wavelength, then its unique style may come across as appealing. I wish I could have shared that perception; it might have made the experience of watching Monkeybone much less depressing. The filmmakers knew the type of movie they wanted to make, they just didn't have the first idea how to get there, and their puckish spirit is no match for such messy and directionless material. At the end of the day, Monkeybone is a sad, flawed journey of heightened expectations and dreadfully diminished returns.

Review published 03.01.2001.

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