Dir. by Henry Selick - 1 hr. 33 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
"Monkeybone" is better than I remember it being. It still wasn't an unheralded classic or anything, but it was definitely better than I remembered. Part of the problem is that media members are super-eager to paint a movie as a "bomb," which is apropos here (a $75 million budget brought in a $7.6 million box office), but can leave a cloud over the film as a creative enterprise. It can take a long time for the stench of that "bomb" label to clear the room, at which point you can evaluate something like "Monkeybone" outside of its era.
Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser) is a cartoonist with a new hit TV show about one of his creations, called "Monkeybone." There are many merchandising opportunities presenting themselves, but Stu has bigger fish to fry: he's going to propose to his girlfriend, Julie (Bridget Fonda). On his way home from the launch party, and before can pop the question, they have a car accident caused by toys (tough to explain, but true) that leaves Stu in a coma. Stu finds himself in Down Town, a carnival-themed waiting room for those in comas, and where people amuse themselves by watching other people's dreams. He's also confronted by his figment, Monkeybone, which is less fun that it sounds. Stu must find a way out of Down Town to get back to Julie before his sister, Kimmy (Megan Mullally) pulls the plug on him.
As always, let's start with the good. Visually, there's a lot of good things going on here (as it should be with a movie about a cartoonist and his cartoon creation). Director Henry Selick also directed "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Coraline," which should give you an approximation of the set design and character animation (this film blends live-action with stop-motion animation). The premise of the movie gives ample opportunity to present a bizarre reality, and Selick really takes advantage of this. If I was going to give one reason for you to check out "Monkeybone," it's that the visuals are fully-realized, and beautifully (and horrifically) stylized. The character animation on the Monkeybone character (voiced by John Turturro) is fun and lively, and is a bonus for animation aficionados.
Adding to the oddness of "Monkeybone" is how anachronistic it comes off now. For some reason, I had it pegged as a 90's movie (maybe due to Brendan Fraser's haircut, maybe because of the live action/stop-motion blend), which is probably due to the attitudes presented. Stu is supposed to be a brooding anti-capitalist (more on that later), and that's very much a 90's attitude towards the relationship between commerce and art. I'd imagine someone stumbling across "Monkeybone" for the first time now would be befuddled as to why Stu was so uncomfortable with having to glad-hand potential merchandisers, and as to why the character's later embrace of this constitutes a heel-turn. There's been a drastic change in attitude on this particular topic over the last decade or so, and Stu's attitude is very much from another era.
But this is a very uneven film, as well. The story itself is pretty straight-forward; it's kind of a one-level video game, where Stu must retrieve an exit pass to get back to Earth. I felt like the story was a bit too straight-forward; there was a surprising amount of adult-oriented humor, and I'm not sure that blending that with slapstick humor (Chris Kattan is particularly good in his role, in this regard) is going to leave any particular audience segment satisfied with the result. Or, at least it wasn't entirely successful here. But I had the biggest problem with the casting, and with Brendan Fraser in particular. It's not that I don't like Fraser - I generally do. He's very likable, is a credible leading man, and can also pull off physical humor. For this particular character, Fraser is all wrong. I understand the motivation of putting someone like him in "Monkeybone," though. At that point in film history, no comic-book properties outside of the "Batman" movies were guaranteed money-makers, and the only chance to get a reasonably big budget approved (which was necessary to provide the visual punch and effects) is to put a reasonably big name in the film.
But Fraser is not brooding by nature (or at least hasn't convinced me of that on-screen), and I didn't buy his knee-jerk anti-merchandising attitudes. So, the traits that were supposed to make him a good guy, I didn't entirely buy into. And since the evil Stu (Stu's body is taken over by Monkeybone) is less malicious than self-serving, there isn't even a ready-made conflict between Stu and Monkeybone. The way it's set up is more of a competition than a conflict, which lessens the drama inherent in this scenario.
The upshot here is that "Monkeybone" is an excellent film visually, which isn't enough to cover for the thin story, general weirdness (and this is a very weird movie), and wrong choice for a lead. In retrospect, it's easy to see why it didn't find an audience; I don't think anyone involved would claim it was their finest work. But that's not to say that "Monkeybone" doesn't have a few charms, like Dave Foley with bleached blond hair, or Rose McGowan dressed like a Halloween sexy cat. While those charms are fleeting, you can kick back and just enjoy the spectacle of the whole thing, which means that this isn't the hardest not-great film to get through.
2 / 5 - Streaming