Monkeybone (2001) / Comedy-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for crude humor and some nudity
Running Time: 92 min.
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Bridget Fonda, Chris Kattan, Giancarlo Esposito, Rose McGowan, John Turturro (voice), Dave Foley, Whoopi Goldberg
Director: Henry Selick
Screenplay: Sam Hamm
Review published March 16, 2003
Monkeybone is a headscratcher of a film; you may laugh your ass off or you may stare in bewilderment, and at the end you will probably not know for sure what to make of it. It's based on a fairly obscure comic book by Kaja Blackley called "Dark Town", and reportedly not very faithfully adapted, as the tone changed from dark and serious in the print form to light and mirthful by the time the movie finally appeared on screens. It has a look and energy that has the stamp of artistic visionary Tim Burton all over it, and for good reason -- director Henry Selick had just finished directing two films produced by Burton, The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, and it's adapted by Sam Hamm, who worked on the Burton comic book flicks, Batman and Batman Returns. Watching it gives the sensation of riding a carnival ride blindfolded, where you can feel like your being taken on a trip, but you don't know where, why, or what's exactly going on at any given time.
Shades of Burton's Beetlejuice also emerge, with a similar comic energy, combined with a premise similar to that of Cool World, and the result is, like both of those films, a mixed bag. Brendan Fraser (Bedazzled, The Mummy) stars as cartoonist Stu Smiley, a troubled man who has a dark side and a light side, and the light one has created a wildly popular comic strip called "Monkeybone". He is close to popping the question to his faithful girlfriend, Julie (Fonda, Lake Placid), with fame and fortune at the ready for national exposure.
A terrible accident occurs that renders Stu into a coma, leaving little hope he will survive unless he can wake out of it within three months, or permanent brain damage will surely result. While comatose, Stu enters a fantasy realm that's not quite death called "Downtown", where his worst nightmares reside, and the only way out is to find an elusive Exit Pass, which takes him back to his body, and presumably back to health. Stu's companion through this land is his own creation, Monkeybone (voiced by Turturro, O Brother Where Art Thou), a cartoonish puppet that causes mischief wherever he goes. Things go from bad to worse when the Exit Pass ends up in the hands of Monkeybone, who sees his opportunity to come to life in Stu's body.
I'll admit, I did enjoy parts of Monkeybone. It has some very funny moments and a crazy energy that amused me through most scenes. The visual imagery is very reminiscent of Selick's previous works, and lots of time and sweat must have been expended at the conceptual level. It's very apparent that everyone has given their all in trying to keep this wild ride together.
Where Monkeybone fails is at a fundamental storytelling level, as there is never a vested interest in the characters and a lack of focus all around that makes what should be an engrossing fantasy quite distant and weird, instead of captivating and endearing. It's a curious experience, too bizarre to connect with most viewers, yet too conventional to call it a surrealist work. Basically, it's a misfire that has all of the elements to create a terrific fantasy-comedy, but it could never put all the pieces together.
Monkeybone benefits from likeable comic actors like Fraser, who definitely is game for just about anything. Chris Kattan (A Night at the Roxbury, Corky Romano) arrives late in the film, and provides some of the funnier moments in a rare role that utilizes his skills for physical humor; it's probably his best work yet. Veterans Whoopi Goldberg (The Associate) and Dave Foley (Dick) chip in with a few laughs, and Bridget Fonda plays it mostly straight, in a role that requires little but to be sweet and understanding.
This is one of those films I am not sure to recommend, because you may love it or hate it, depending on how appealing you find animated fantasies. I definitely would say not to pay money to see it your first time, as there's a very good chance you'll stop watching early on if it doesn't grab you. At the same time, I wouldn't discourage anyone from at least attempting to watch it, as there is a creativeness that makes it somehow worth viewing despite it never really gelling into a satisfying whole. It has a quality of flawed greatness that will probably earn it a cult following, but for most viewers, a Monkeybone will never be confused for a funny bone.
©2003 Vince Leo