Having launched his career with the weird and intriguing MTV short subject “Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions” (the first of what was supposd to be several episodes that, never, alas materialized), Henry Selick followed up by directing one of the most charming fantasy entertainments ever created for the screen, Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993). Selick not only evinced a formidable technical expertise, employing stop-motion and other effects to create images at once bizarre and beautiful; he also showed a seemingly sure hand for employing that expertise in the service of the greater good: creating a film that worked as a whole, not just a series of set pieces. He seemed to be a major new talent in the field of cinefantastique.
Unfortunately, Selick’s next directorial outing was a severe disappointment: JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (1996) displayed the same impressive technical accomplishment, but the movie was an unengaging technical tour-de-force that prompted CFQ’s Dan Persons to note that looks “can only go so far” while criticizing the “formless story” and “flat characterizations.” 2001’s MONKEYBONE continued Selick’s downward career trajectory; not merely a disappointment, the film is a complete disaster that bombed with both audiences ($7.6-million worldwide gross on a $75-million budget) and with critics (20% approval at Rotten Tomatoes).
The terrible ticket sales prompted a typical round of the Blame Game, with filmmakers anonymously pointing fingers at 20th Century Fox for not supporting the film’s release, but even a casual glance at MONKEYBONE reveals serious flaws that rendered potential success virtually impossible. In a nutshell, Selick and company attempt to delve into darker, more adult territory, but they operate with all the sophistication of an immature kiddie flick, resulting in a film that appeals to neither parents nor their children.
The tone is set immediately in an animated prologue that depicts grade school student Stu Miley becoming sexually aroused by his overweight teacher’s flabby arms. Obviously intended as a comical scene about sex, the scene is neither funny nor sexy, prompting neither laughter nor arousal but only disgust. As a plot point, the sequence serves its function (Stu’s arousal led to the creation of a cartoon character named Monkeybone, representing his id), but the entertainment value is virtually zero.
The remainder of the film operates on the same level, serving up a series of scenes that are dull or uninteresting when they are not simply mildly repugnant. Stu (Brendan Fraser) is a successful cartoonist who winds up in a coma just as his Monkeybone character is being launched in a new animated series. His soul ends up in Dark Town, which is populated by a variety of bizarre characters, including Monkeybone, who manages to catch a ride back to the real world, where he inhabits Stu’s body, putting the moves on Dr. Julie McElroy (Bridget Fonda). Stu eventually manages to get back to Earth, occupying the body of a dead gymnast (Chris Kattan) and sending Monkeybone back to Dark Town.
All of these scenes roll on without any rhythm and with no consideration for whether or not they are working. No one involved with the film seems to have considered the fact that there is nothing funy about seeing Monkeybone possess Stu’s body and attempt to seduce Stu’s fiancee; the very concept is repulsive. That Fraser plays the scene by acting like a monkey (which Monkeybone himself seldom if ever does) only makes it worse. The gymnast sequences may have been funny out of context, but this late in the film they come across as desperate attempts to enliven a moribund film.
There is also an unnecessary plot complication: Julie is a sleep expert, whose experiments will create nightmares; Hypnos (Giancarlo Esposito) wants the formula to revitzlied Dark Town, so he double-crosses Stu, helping Monkeybone escape from Dark Town in his place. This takes up screen time but adds nothing vital to the story. Monkeybone is the kind of character who should act alone, on impulse, not as part of some conspiracy.
The film throws so much at the audience that, inevitably, a few entertaining moments do stick, but they are few and far between. Miss Kitty (Rose McGowan) registers mostly as a teen-age boy’s fantasy – female sex appeal outfitted with a few feline accoutrement’s – but his sudden transition into feral ferocity (killing a guard to help Stu escape from Dark Town) is the one moment when the film’s attempt to twist its colorful imagery into something dark and twisted actually works.
Monkeybone may have had the potential to be a memorably off-the-wall character in the manner of other unleashed maniacs (think of THE MASK or Buddy Love in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR), but he is only obnoxious. Characters of this type usually intrigue because we are invited to enjoy their antics even as we disapprove of them, but nothing about Monkeybone is enjoyable. The rest of the characters are little better. Although we sympathize with Stu’s situation, he does not register much as a personality, and Bridget Fonda’s fressh-faced appeal is the only good thing about Julie.
The sets and special effects do provide some interesting sights, but they can be enjoyed far more easily in the trailer. Having created the potentially fascinating world of Dark Town on screen, Selick and screenwriter Sam Hamm simply have not managed to tell an interesting story in that setting. The problem is not that their approach was too adult for audiences expecting a family-friendly fantasy; it is that their “adult” approach displays a sad lack of maturity.
The special edition DVD presents the film with solid technical credentials, including a good image transfer and a 5.1 mix in both DTS and Dolby Digital. Extras include a photo gallery, a trailer, TV spots, 7 animation studies, 11 deleted scenes, and an audio commentary.
The “animation studies” show early rough versions of the effects sequences, accompanied by optional commentary from Selick, providing some insight into how these scenes are put together.
Ten of the eleven deleted scenes feature optional commentary by Selick. Mostly these are extended scenes rather than totally new material. In fact, considering the rumors that circulated about last-minute re-editing after disastrous preview screenings, it is surprising how relatively insignificant the additional footage is – no more than one would expect from the usual trimming for time. They offer no indication that the film underwent major surgery and only serve to remind us that, as poorly paced as the movie is, it could have been even worse.
Henry Selick’s audio commentary is the most interesting bonus feature. He provides plenty of information about how the special effects were achieved, along with behind-the-scenes stories about working on the film. Unfortunately, Selick seldom comes to grips with what is wrong with MONKEYBONE. He explains away the bad reception by suggesting the film was too sophisticated and adult (unlike the pure simplicity of Tim Burton’s work). The one notable exception comes when he admits to some reservations about the sub-plot involving Julie’s sleep experiments. Even with this caveat, Selick’s commentary is informative and entertaining enough to make it worth your while to sit through MONKEYBONE again, whether or not you liked it the first time.
MONKEYBONE (2001). Directed by Henry Selick. Screenplay by Sam Hamm, based on the graphic novel Dark Townby Kaja Blackley. Cast: Brendan Fraser, Bridget Fonda, John Turturro, Chris Kattan, Giancarlo Esposito, Rose McGowan, Dave Foley, Megan Mullally, Lisa Zane, Whoopi Goldberg.