Movie Review: Monkeybone
Monkeybone is about the battle between a cartoonist and his penis, as symbolized by an obnoxious animated monkey. Hence the title.
The cartoonist, Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser) -- or S. Miley, as his nametag reads -- is a formerly tortured artist who has found his muse in psychiatrist girlfriend Julie (Bridget Fonda) and his calling in drawing cartoons. Monkeybone is his star creation, whom we first see literally bursting from the lap of a cartoon version of Stu.
Monkeybone is, no surprise, irrepressible, saying the kinds of things nice guy Stu apparently has trained himself not to. Audiences in the world of Monkeybone find the character so endearing that the resulting Monkeybone franchise is about to take off with a TV show (the pilot is called "Show Me the Monkey") and, if Stu finally gives the OK, a bonanza of merchandise.
But when a freak accident knocks Stu into a coma, his soul winds up in a limbo underworld, called Downtown, which is populated by an assortment of macabre creatures plus Monkeybone, who makes Stu the butt of his unending stream of jokes.
Can Stu find a way to escape Downtown and re-enter his real-life body before Death taps him for permanent residence? Can he get Monkeybone (voiced by John Turturro) to shut up? Please?
The shrill, vulgar, seemingly hacked-up, not-for-kids Monkeybone is the first live-action film from Henry Selick, who directed James and the Giant Peach and Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. He made those movies using stop-motion animation, and here he incorporates that technique to breathe life into Monkeybone and some residents of Downtown.
Stop-action animation is less fluid than the computer-generated kind; the idea is that it allows for more idiosyncrasy and personality. It doesn't, however, seem to work very well when combined with actual actors. Thirteen years after Who Framed Roger Rabbit convincingly integrated cartoon and real characters, the animated creations and flesh-and-blood types here rarely appear to be occupying the same space.
Also, Selick's level of invention has taken a dip. Given that Nightmare Before Christmas and other Burton (who is not involved in this movie) projects have upped the eccentric-ghouls ante, the Halloween carnival world of Downtown feels too familiar. The population is a combination of animated figures, people in Batman,-type costumes (Rose McGowan as a bartender named Kitty) and overgrown puppet types that trigger memories (for those of us old enough) of H.R. Pufnstuf.
Selick and writer Sam Hamm based Monkeybone on Kaja Blackley's graphic novel Dark Town, which detailed a character's race against time to escape limbo and rejoin the living. The filmmakers have made one key addition: Monkeybone, who isn't in the novel but takes over the movie.
There's a grand history of lovably irreverent cartoon characters. Monkeybone isn't one of them. He's an irritant to Stu and an irritant to us - just an annoying, hyperactive little simian with a foul mouth and dirty mind. There's nothing particularly funny about watching an animated monkey plunge into McGowan's cleavage (the only apparent reason she was cast). Watching his antics is like reading really old Playboy Party Jokes -- the ones that now might merit a PG-13 rating.
The movie doesn't seem to know whom it's aimed for or what it's about. It's trying simultaneously to be a sweet love story about a guy desperately trying to get back to his girlfriend and a cautionary tale about the havoc that can be wreaked when one's male libido runs amok, but these ideas are never reconciled or made remotely coherent. We certainly never get the sense that Stu's problems are rooted in his disconnection from his sex drive.
Fraser, who seems to be on a quest to demonstrate how game he is, turns in another of his multiple-personality acting jobs, though he doesn't have to cover as much ground as in Bedazzled. As the earnest Stu, he's typically nebbishy, and as a version of Stu temporarily possessed by Monkeybone, he's a limber, chops-licking animal.
The other human performers barely register amid the chaos. Fonda provides warmth in an underwritten part, and Whoopi Goldberg plays Death exactly as you'd expect her to: as wisecracking Whoopi Goldberg.
Aside from the occasional colorful details around the edges -- the route back to the real world somehow involves Thomas Paine's head -- Monkeybone isn't much more creative than your average gross-out comedy. You feel it straining for wackiness with its gas-passing monkey dolls and a corpse-like gymnast (a loose Chris Kattan) who can't keep his vital organs inside his body, but the laughs never arrive.
The movie includes a snippet of the John Hiatt song "Little Head" in which the singer laments, "I'm just so easily led when the little head does the thinking." Selick should have taken this lesson to heart and paid less attention to Monkeybone and more to our funny bones.