When a movie teeming with imaginative visuals and ideas goes bad, it goes painfully bad. You see all the backbreaking work that went into each frame, the months of design and craftsmanship, and it all literally hurts to watch. It hurts, too, when you have to point out that all the sound and fury signify nothing. So it is with Monkeybone, a crass and frantic comedy-fantasy pitched alternately, I think, at ten-year-olds and stoned college students. It is the very definition of a February movie, a dud too weak to survive any other time of year (and probably in February, too).
It’s not as though Monkeybone lacked talent across the board. In front of the camera, you have professional madcaps like Brendan Fraser and Bridget Fonda, both attractive actors unafraid of silliness; a bleached-blonde Dave Foley; Chris Kattan, whose purely physical comedy, unaugmented by special effects, is the best thing in the movie; Giancarlo Esposito and Rose McGowan (the latter in a fetching cat costume) as denizens of a psychological netherworld; and Whoopi Goldberg as Death, seeming like the center square in a Dali-esque version of Hollywood Squares.
Behind the camera, more promisingly, we have the stop-motion animator Henry Selick, who breathed life into the creations of Tim Burton and Roald Dahl in Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. Working to a greater extent with live action for the first time, Selick and his army of designers cram a prodigious volume of beasts and tortured architecture into every possible frame. The result should be a dark-fantasy joyride to bring tears of envy to Terry Gilliam’s eyes, a shoot-the-works lollapalooza of dream logic.
It’s a lollapalooza, all right. Elbowing all the flashy visuals out of the way, we find a rather sorry plot. Cartoonist Stu Miley (Fraser) is on the eve of uneasy success: his creation “Monkeybone,” a sort of Spike & Mike expression of his repressed id, has won a spot on the Comedy Channel’s schedule. Just as he’s about to pop the question to his girlfriend Julie (Fonda), Stu is knocked into a coma. His coma-induced inner life looks like a cross between the busy otherworlds of Beetlejuice and Cool World, and there he meets his creation and nemesis Monkeybone (voice by John Turturro), who wants to take over Stu’s body before Stu’s sister (Megan Mullaly) pulls the plug on him. Are you laughing yet?
Monkeybone establishes a sophomoric tone early on (in an admittedly amusing toon equating Monkeybone to Stu’s libido) and never transcends it. By the time the bogus Stu (with Monkeybone controlling his body, while the real Stu stews in limbo) is playing with farting Monkeybone dolls and hatching a diabolical plan around them, you’ve given up on the movie, unless you’re ten years old or stoned, or both. The comedy feels increasingly thin and labored; the actors, particularly poor Brendan Fraser, flail around sweating for big laughs, winning polite chuckles at best, like conscientious Saturday Night Live guest hosts trapped in an especially lame sketch. Only Chris Kattan, as a re-animated gymnast with a broken neck, scores with his aforementioned physical inventiveness, but it’s too little, too late.
It’s obvious from this movie (and from the shabby live-action framing sequences of James and the Giant Peach) that Henry Selick doesn’t do people; he functions best in a tiny stop-motion world powered by the imagination of people who think with their eyes or indulge their wit, like Burton and Dahl. (The script here is credited to Sam Hamm, adapting the comic book Dark Town by Kaja Blackley; I haven’t read it, but I hope it’s better than this.) Monkeybone shows a lot of talented people busting a gut to zap a very dead Frankenstein’s monster into life. The scattered nice touches (I liked the nightmare prison inhabited by such people as Jack the Ripper, Edgar Allan Poe, and Stephen King) only make you cringe all the more at the first-grade-level stuff about Monkeybone dolls that emit noxious gas when you pull their thumbs out of their asses. The movie does likewise.