Screenplay : Sam Hamm (based on the graphic novel Dark Town by Kaja Blackley)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Brendan Fraser (Stu Miley), Bridget Fonda (Julie McElroy), Rose McGowan (Miss Kitty), Whoopi Goldberg (Death), Chris Kattan (Organ Donor), Dave Foley (Herb), Megan Mullally (Kimmy), Giancarlo Esposito (Hypnos)
In Monkeybone, Brendan Fraser plays Stu Miley, the mild-mannered creator of a cartoon nightmare knows as Monkeybone. Taking the form of a small, grinning simian with lanky arms and legs and a mouthful of shiny square teeth, the titular creation is a small dollop of pure id mixed in with everyone's worst dreams. He was originally invented as Stu's creative outlet to escape from a cycle of insomnia and nightmares, and the movie plays out like a cartoon variant of Freud's "return of the repressed."
When the movie opens, Monkeybone the comic strip has just been turned into a TV pilot for a cartoon cable channel, and the big corporations are lining up to get on the merchandising bandwagon. Stu doesn't like the idea of his creation being turned into lunchboxes, stuffed animals, and happy meals, despite the urgings of his manager, Herb (Dave Foley). When Stu attempts to get away from a corporate meeting, he and his girlfriend, a sleep doctor named Julie (Bridget Fonda) to whom he is about to propose marriage, end up in a car wreck that sends him into a coma.
And this is when the movie gets appropriately weird.
Director Henry Selick, who is known for helming the bizarrely enjoyable stop-motion animation films The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996), is right in his element once Stu is hurled into Downtown, a carnivalesque dreamworld where people in comas bide their time while waiting for either an exit pass back into consciousness or a ride further down the tracks to Thanatopolis, which is presided over by Death herself in the form of Whoopi Goldberg.
Downtown is populated not only by apparently normal people who are in comas, but also a rogue's gallery of bizarre creatures, ranging from a cyclops with an oversized head, to a strange crab-like creature with a man's face, to a curvaceous feline waitress played by Rose McGowan. Mixing digital special effects with Jim Henson-like puppetry, stop-motion animation, and enormous sets, the scenes in Downtown are like something right out of one of Tim Burton's early films, especially Beetlejuice (1988), and Selick knows just how to milk these moments for maximum weirdness.
Unfortunately, the script by Sam Hamm, who also penned Burton's Batman (1989), proceeds to dive headfirst into a convoluted, often confusing plot involving Stu's simian cartoon creation taking over his physical body and devising a plan in which plush Monkeybone toys will be filled with a special chemical innocently devised by Julie to give people nightmares. This does involve an amusing scene in which Stu finds himself stuck in a prison in Downtown along with other famous men whose imaginary sidekicks took over their bodies in reality, including Edgar Allan Poe (it was a raven) and Stephen King (wouldn't you know it was Cujo?).
While Stu tries to devise a plan for escaping Downtown to reclaim his body, the spastic and horny Monkeybone freely uses Stu's physical body to his own ends back on earth. This scenario gives Brendan Fraser free comic reign to essentially act like an idiot, and while his monkey posturing is at times quite funny, the whole schtick gets old quickly.
Much, much funnier is the scenario in which Stu convinces Death to send him back to earth to stop Monkeybone. Death obliges, and Stu finds himself hurtled into the recently deceased body of Saturday Night Live's Chris Kattan, who has not only broken his neck in a freak gymnastics accident, but is literally on the surgeon's table having his organs removed for donation when Stu takes over his body. Kattan almost steals the movie as he runs through the streets in red Spandex, his head lolling from side to side on its broken neck (he eventually tapes it upright with a T-square) while a group of angry surgeons chases him. These scenes are almost shockingly grotesque, but also ludicrously hilarious. It's a gloriously fantastic gross-out, especially once Kattan's organs start falling out while he is dangling from a hot-air balloon, as well an ample demonstration of the elasticity of the by-now-meaningless PG-13 rating.
Despite these isolated moments of comic brilliance, as a whole, Monkeybone never quite comes together as it should. Fraser gives it his all as both the befuddled Stu and the manic Monkeybone (his entire career has been based on oscillating between complete normalcy and spastic eccentricity), and he and Bridget Fonda make a likable, believable couple who give some sense of gravity to the haphazard wackiness around them.
Perhaps the problem is Monkeybone himself. Although amusing, he doesn't seem quite outrageous or inventive enough to grab our attention. For all the time and effort that went into the movie's production (the budget has been reported as being around $80 million), one would think their central cartoon character would have been given a more unique and lasting personality. As is, he doesn't even seem to have been worth the repression.
|Monkeybone: Special Edition DVD|
|Audio|| Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
DTS 5.1 Surround
|Languages||English (DD & DTS 5.1, 2.0) |
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by director Henry Selick |
11 extended scenes with optional commentary
7 animated studies with option commentary
29 still galleries
Original theatrical trailer
Three TV spots
|Distributor||20th Century Fox|
|Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), the image on this DVD is very good. Filled with incredible visuals and a bold color scheme, Monkeybone is a unique film to look at, and this DVD does it right. From the bright, bold colors of the opening cartoon segment to the high contrast between light and darkness in Downtown, everything looks good. Black levels are generally solid, although there were a few instances when they seemed a little gray and betrayed some grain, and shadow detail is very good. Flesh tones appear normal (well, except for Chris Kattan's corpse, of course), and colors are bright and well-saturated without bleeding.|
|Available in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 surround, the soundtrack is excellent. The movie matches its complex visual design with an elaborate, heavily layered soundtrack of effects and weird noises, all of which are well-rendered and clear with good use of directionality and imaging. The Downtown segments are especially enveloping, filling the discreet surround channels with strange noises and voices coming that seem to come from all around.|
| 20th Century Fox was accused of not getting behind Monkeybone during its theatrical release, which some say was the main reason why it tanked at the box office. Nevertheless, they have done a good job outfitting it as a "Special Edition" DVD, even though they dropped the ball on the new cover art, which makes the movie look like bad straight-to-video flick (although someone out there is snickering about the inclusion of such obvious phallic imagery--look at the positioning of those two bananas). |
Director Henry Selick contributes an engaging screen-specific audio commentary in which he makes it pretty clear through several less-than-veiled references to tampering and compromises with studio executives that he is not completely happy with the finished product. He questions the inclusion of some subplots and bemoans the loss of scenes here and there. This is not to say that his commentary is a downer; rather, it's just honest. Selick has a dry, dark sense of humor (which is obvious from the films he makes), which gives his commentary an edge that many others don't have. His commentary is largely technical in nature, as he talks a lot about the various special effects and how scenes were put together.
This line of commentary is extended into the seven animation studies that depict Monkeybone and other creatures in various stages of their animation. Mostly, this entails seeing the stop-motion animation in rough form, that is, against a blue screen with wires and supports still visible. Selick offers some brief bits of optional commentary during these segments, explaining in more detail how they were accomplished.
Selick also offers optional commentary during the 11 (yes, count 'em, 11) extended scenes that are included. Most of the scenes included here were trimmed for the purpose of shortening the movie and quickening the pace, and Selick makes it clear that he wishes most of it had been left in, especially an extended version of how Stu winds up in a coma (this alternate version was used as part of the theatrical trailer). Also included within this section is a slightly different ending that was never used and a complete version of the cartoon that opens the movie.
For those interested in the special effects, this disc also includes an extensive section of still galleries. They are divided into five main sections (Monkeybone, Downtown, Coma Bar, Hypnos, and Land of Death), which together contain 29 subgalleries that include dozens and dozens of pieces of concept art, preliminary character design sketches, and photographs and prosthetic devices, as well as few very brief work-in-progress video segments. This section is particularly interesting in that you can trace how all the bizarre characters in the movie were developed over time from multiple ideas and concepts.
Lastly, the original theatrical trailer is included in full-frame, as well as three TV spots.
©2001 James Kendrick