*/**** Image B- Sound B Extras B
starring Brendan Fraser, Bridget Fonda, Chris Kattan, Giancarlo Esposito
screenplay by Sam Hamm
directed by Henry Selick
by Walter Chaw At long last someone decided to crossbreed Cool World, Beetlejuice, and All of Me. Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser) is a cartoonist in the John Kricfalusi tradition on the cusp of semi-stardom, with his own animated half-hour series impending on Comedy Central. His creation, the titular "Monkeybone" (voiced by John Turturro), is a dangerously sexualized simian that, we learn, is born from the shame of a pre-adolescent's erection and a disturbed man's sublimated aggression. Seminal, indeed. Plunged into a coma, Stu is dropped into a Freudian stew of elaborate set-design and partially-successful live-action integration called Downtown, helpless as Monkeybone takes over his flesh body, bangs his angelic gal Julie (Bridget Fonda), and parlays Stu's modest cartoon into a marketing monolith bent on pushing nightmare-inducing toys (ushering Monkeybone into the poorly-attended "Club Halloween III"). Making matters somehow more unbearable, in Downtown Stephen King is literally a character, Giancarlo Esposito is a satyr, and--as box-office watchers of her last ten films will attest--Whoopi Goldberg is Death.
An opening cartoon (a gimmick reminding a great deal of the prologue to Who Framed Roger Rabbit) puts the sketchpad alter ego of Stu Miley on the couch, cluing us none-too-subtly into the fact that Monkeybone is going to reside in Stu's unconscious. Or does it? Downtown is sometimes the Freudian unconscious, other times the Jungian collective, and still others, a Beetlejuice-ian way station for souls in limbo. Selick's inability to decide what Downtown is neatly undermines any chance that the film might have had to say something truly dark and unsettling. That piquant touch of psychoanalytical value is vital to Monkeybone, you see, because lacking it, the film also lacks any kind of intelligence, dooming it to the turbid morasses of unfunny gags and overblown performances.
Monkeybone is just an excuse to allow Brendan Fraser to act like a monkey. That a good deal of his acting like a monkey involves him shucking and jiving and eventually singing to such soul standards as "Let's Get It On" and "Brick House" is a matter that, by itself, should inspire a good deal of thought. What does a film like Monkeybone, in other words, say about our cultural pulse? Not that we're a racist nation content with easy stereotypes painted in broad strokes (hell, who doesn't know that?), but that there is an assumption by most of our entertainments that we'll either fail to notice them, or we won't care if we do. Right, it's just a movie--and National Socialism was just the catalyst for an economic miracle.
Most disturbingly, Monkeybone, as an entertainment, makes no pretense of quality and no pretense of social value nor philosophical resonance. It does not pretend to have a plot, does not appear to aspire to romance, drama, comedy, etc.. It can't decide if it wants to be Ralph Bakshi or Tim Burton or Tex Avery. It's not even sure if it's better off yanking its secondary fruits from the Dutch Elm-blighted "SNL" tree or the proud Canadian "Kids in the Hall" maple (or even the dwarf "MADtv" pine). And though it spends an inordinate amount of time stirring the aforementioned Freudian stew, the only thing that its fixation on frustrated sexuality points to is director Henry Selick's (Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas) own barn door being open.
Chris Kattan (this generation's Jim Varney, he's making it a habit of being the best thing about terrible films--see also the remake of House on Haunted Hill) is the best thing about this terrible film. Playing a dead gymnast with the reckless physicality of his Mr. Peepers character from SNL (anyone taking bets on how long it'll be before we see Mr. Peepers: The Movie?), Kattan is a gifted Danny Kaye-esque comedian--a fact that has been handily camouflaged by his participation in "Saturday Night Live". The ten minutes of Monkeybone containing Kattan are something approaching inspired. They almost distract from the lingering heebie-jeebies evoked by Whoopi Goldberg's ever-accelerating metamorphosis into Bill Cosby. Monkeybone has the seeds of something sublimely dark and witty--something daring and unusual rather than just scatological and bland. Without the potential for something of value, after all, Monkeybone couldn't be the very special failure that it is...
...Well, without Whoopi Goldberg and exanimate Bridget Fonda, as well. Credit where credit is due.
Monkeybone's Special Edition DVD is a classic example of too much for too little. Fans of the film, rejoice--both of you. The film's 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is surprisingly pedestrian, given Fox's stellar track record. The picture is often grainy and seems to have trouble with textures, which is a particular problem as many of the bizarre denizens of Downtown are attired in coloured and/or checkered fur. The first long look we get of Fonda at a party appears to have been shot on Super16. Another visual artifact probably not a flaw of the mastering is that the CGI-inserted Monkeybone himself (plus a few other beasties) clearly inhabits a different environment from the flesh-and-blood stars. Not having seen Monkeybone in theatres, I can't say if this lamentable inconsistency is less noticeable on film stock than it is at home, but it's exceedingly distracting. The DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks meanwhile make their best use of the rear speakers during the Downtown carnival sequence--a fortuitous thing coming as it does just before you learn that the film is terrible. The crowd noise surrounds satisfyingly and a scene involving a crazed pig-monster cooking up some barbecued pork is lent added dementia by the left-to-right swooshing of a shooting flame. The dialogue, disappointingly, is clear and easy to understand.
The special features--and there are an unreasonable amount of special features--begin with one of the more irritating audio commentaries I've had the displeasure of experiencing. Marked by long silences and vague pronouncements, Henry Selick's remarks begin promisingly enough by detailing the source material (Kaja Blackley's graphic novel Dark Town) and the influence of Chris Columbus on the concept--which does, indeed, go a long way towards explaining why Monkeybone sucks with such devotion. Selick immediately segues into narration and extended credit-giving to people who are neither introduced nor later explained alternating with a recurrent tirade against The Studio, who conspired to cut out all the "good" bits. Lucky for fans of the movie, the DVD also includes eleven deleted scenes, five complete with very sparse commentary from Selick ("Here's a scene I really liked, um, they forced me to cut it out"). I fear that short of starting over from scratch, however, little could have been done to salvage the film.
Additionally featured are seven "Monkeybone Secrets Revealed" shorts that appear to be every single special effects sequence in the film, isolated. What you have, then, is about half-an-hour of a little monkey puppet dancing around in front of a green screen. Selick again offers commentary, such as it is, for three of these "secrets." An extended photo gallery features thirty artist's conceptual drawings of Monkeybone, four short cartoon strips (one of which is sort of funny), two pictures of cartoon Stu, and about twenty conceptual drawings of the Monkeybone merchandise used on screen. It continues with a huge amount of sketches ("Monkeybone Gallery") of Downtown and its residents coupled with photos of latex masks that were used in the action for each individual character. There's really a wealth of information in here and one wishes that a documentary had been fashioned using all of this archival stuff--at least until one realizes that he has already spent too much time thinking about Monkeybone. A theatrical trailer and three television spots round out the presentation. Originally published: July 12, 2001.