Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Director Report Card: Henry Selick (2001)

3. Monkeybone

Henry Selick’s first two films were visually spellbinding animated features and at least one of them is a genuine classic. “James and the Giant Peach” featured live action and, even if those sequence were some of the weaker moments in the film, it obviously piqued Selick’s interest. His next movie, “Monkeybone,” would be primarily live action. Starting life as an adaptation of indie comic “Dark Town,” the script eventually shifted into an entirely different project. The exceedingly strange film that followed attempted to bring Selick’s style, the illustrations of Vanessa Chong and Mark Ryden, and a seriously demented sense of humor into the real world.

The film revolves around cartoonist Stu Miley. After suffering from years of horrible nightmares and depression, Stu is finally starting to turn his life around. His comic strip “Monkeybone,” about a monkey that is representative of the milquetoast’s protagonist’s id, is about to become a cartoon and primed to be a merchandise juggernaut. More importantly to Stu, he’s about to propose to sleep study doctor girlfriend. However, a car crash puts the proposal on hold, as Stu is stuck in a coma. His mind is damned to an alternate dimension called “Down Town,” a world inhabited by coma patients and populated with monsters born of nightmares. There, Stu meets Monkeybone, his creation, and soon embarks on a wacky adventure to return to the world of the waking. Monkeybone, along with the nightmare-eating inhabitants of Down Town, have a different plan.

 “Monkeybone” is an aggressively strange movie. The film begins with an animated sequence where Stu describes being sexually excited by his elderly school teacher’s bye-bye arms. That first awkward boner would also be the first appearance of Monkeybone, a character directly linked to the protagonist’s basest desires. Upon arriving in Down Town, Stu is immediately harassed by all manner of bizarre, baffling creatures. The city is ruled over by Hypnos, the Greek god of nightmares, who is portrayed as a midget devil with shrunken legs. It says a lot that the title character is one of the least odd elements of the film. The craziness even continues after the story moves back into the realm of the living. The finale features a living corpse tossing his organs around as weapons. That “Monkeybone” was released by a main stream studio seems utterly impossible. That Fox spent 75 million on the movie, and expected it to be anything but a huge bomb, is even more baffling.

The movie is deeply, deeply flaw but there’s one thing “Monkeybone” really has going for. A movie this fucking weird is packed full of unforgettable images. The production design is out of control. Stu enters Down Town by riding on a giant, twisting roller coaster. This fits the city's design as a Carnival from Hell. Residents wander from area to area on rickety bumper cars. When coma patients awake, they exit the town by being rocket into the mouth of a giant statue of Abraham Lincoln. Down Town is actually set inside a giant mechanical hand. The world of the dead, that exists below the coma world, is even stranger. Green and sterile, it features giant grim reapers, who are nothing but huge cloth hoods, riding around on flying bicycles. Those that try to escape are locked in a cage that is actually the mouth of a huge, twisted clown face. One of the best sets in the film is the hangout of Hypnos. It’s a weird nightclub covered floor to ceiling in black and white spirals. There are so many spirals that I can only assume Selick is goofing on Tim Burton, the director he’s most associated with.

Down Town is also full of unforgettably weird creatures. Upon arriving, Stu is greeted by roadkill animals, brought to life through stop motion. There are cubic sphinxes that watch the gate. A giant headed cyclops, that hobbles around on giant knuckles, frightens Stu. A cow-man with a Picasso face runs the local bar. An elephant headed creature plays piano in tune to Monkeybone’s songs. Upon arriving in the bar, Stu almost sits on a human-headed giant termite. A bizarre Hindu-god style statue delivers the mail. Hypnos himself is a weird enough character and his girlfriend appears to be a quasi-humanoid bee girl. Each of these characters are brought to life through an unsettling mixture of puppetry, stop motion, and ungainly suits. One of the few likable characters in the film is a sexy catgirl played by Rose McGowen. Miss Kitty forms something of a crush on Stu and is the only resident of Down Town that doesn’t appear to be solely out for herself. She frees Stu from prison and attacks the mouse-man guard. Subverting the expectations we have for sexy cat girls, Miss Kitty gorily kills the mouse-man, eating him. Because in the universe of “Monkeybone,” even the nice people are demented killers.

The movie is also painfully committed to its nightmarish tone. Early on, we get a look at a painting Stu made, describing some of the nightmares he had before meeting his girlfriend. Later on, that nightmare comes to life, the character reliving it. It involves Stu being trapped as a twitching mound of body horror about to be dissected by a big-headed doctor who also has a twitching mound of body horror extending from his face. There are other nightmares too. Julie worries about Stu dying so she dreams about his body melting like a deflated balloon. The possessed Stu runs after lingerie model through a golf field before falling into a sand trap. He speaks in slow motion while Hypnos uses his head as a golf cue. Even Stu’s pet dog Buster gets a nightmare sequence. The dog dreams about being tied down while cat-humanoids, portrayed by real cats inside bizarre puppet bodies, threaten to castrate him. Each nightmare is shot in stark black and white. Each one is disturbing enough that you wonder if “Monkeybone” is even meant to be a comedy.

That inconsistent tone is one of the film’s biggest problems. The surreal dream world of Down Town being bizarre and frantic is to be expected. However, the entire film carries that crazed tone. Even before we’re launched into the weird alternate university, there’s a mean-spirited tone of exaggerated behavior running through the film. Dave Foley plays Herb, Stu’s agent, who is an exaggerated take on the sleazy agent stereotype. The car accident happens when a giant inflatable Monkeybone toy goes off in the car, blinding the passengers. In the later half of the film, the people around the Monkeybone possessed Stu are as deranged as he is. There’s no safe harbor in this movie. The waking world is as surreal and twisted as the nightmare world.

Except when it isn’t anyway. Beneath the absolute insanity of everything else happening in “Monkeybone,” the movie is trying to tell a coherent love story. Stu’s feelings for Julie are genuine and she feels the same way. His money-grubbing sister is eager to pull the plug on Stu, presumably to inherent his prospective fortune, a subplot that never really goes anywhere. Julie works overtime to prevent that from happening. When Stu awakes, now possessed by the randy monkey, Julie is understandably put off by his change in personality. Near the end, amid the organ tossing and giant clouds of monkey fart gas, Julie and the resurrected Stu attempt to have a heart-to-heart. The love story is the only element of the film that is sincere. The rest of the movie is a hateful, violently weird film full of crude humor. The romance comes off as unconvincing, compared to the rest of the film, and it doesn’t help that Brendan Fraser and Bridget Fonda have zero chemistry together. Fonda, for one, seems as baffled by the movie as the audience is.

For a film with as much insane shit happening in it as “Monkeybone,” there are surprisingly few laughs to be had. The film attempts to satirize the way artists sell out in favor of corporate merchandising. Since the film’s world is so aggressively exaggerated, it makes any satirical point impossible to take seriously. The weird is so weird and off-putting that the audience is more likely to cry then laugh at it. The “funny” scenes that most rise to the surface is the movie’s puerile obsession with fart and crude sex jokes. The possessed Stu plans to spread the nightmare gas via Monkeybone dolls that fart, a toy unlikely to pass child safety regulations. He sneaks out of bed at night in nothing but a robe, flashing his ass at the camera, and winds up kissing a chimp. Later, Dave Foley stripes down to his bare ass too, running around naked at the end. Attempted humor scenes are often underscored by the most obvious musical choices possible. A love scene between Julie and possessed Stu is at first scored to “Let’s Get it On” before Stu begins to climb the bed, “Foxy Lady” kicking in on the soundtrack. While dancing with a group of scantily clad girls, Stu sings a rendition of “Brick House.” While kissing the aforementioned chimp, “Lovin’ You” plays. It seems a seven year old made the soundtrack decisions here. There are appearances of jokes but the audience never actually laughs.

It doesn’t help that the movie horribly drags, even with its brief 94 minute run time. This is mostly the fault of the incoherent screenplay. There’s a plot but it frequently takes a backseat to the bizarre seat pieces. Essentially, the storyline is the nightmare creatures send Monkeybone back to Earth in Stu’s place in hopes that the mischievous monkey will create more nightmares, so as to feed the hungry populace of Down Town. Monkeybone intends on doing this by spreading Julie’s nightmare drug, a plot device if there ever was one, throughout the world. Stu, meanwhile, has to make it back to the waking world, stop his evil doppelganger, and save his relationship. However, this plot is buried beneath all the other insane shit that happens. We frequently forget what Monkeybone’s objective is. The villains in Down Town are never given proper characterization, so we never truly understand what their final goal is. The ending essentially shrugs off all these concerns, simply happy that the hero is reunited with his girlfriend.

There’s very few likable characters in the film. Some of this is by design. Monkeybone is obviously meant to be as obnoxious as possible. The character was probably meant to be lovably mischievous, a funny troublemaker. However, the mean-spirited tone of the film, combined with his lasciviousness, makes it impossible to like Monkeybone. He’s a hateful little shit, pure and simple. Yet even Stu is far from likable. He is such an ineffectual guy, crippled by his fears and anxieties, that you can never relate to him. The film ends with a wise character deciding that slamming the two together, to give Stu a bit of Monkeybone’s spontaneity, is the best thing to do. Perhaps the movie should have started there, instead of forcing us to watch two unlikable protagonists for most of the run time.

So does anything funny happen in “Monkeybone?” Yeah, occasionally. One of the best, and strangest jokes, is Whoopi Goldberg’s role as Death. Yes, Whoopi plays Death Herself. In a move similar to “Beetlejuice,” the afterlife is bogged down in paper work. Death orders around her incompetent army of cloth grim reapers. Stu and Monkeybones’ attempt to infiltrate the reaper army is one of the few times the film’s absurdity inspires laughter. When irritated, Death’s head explodes, forcing her assistant to retrieve a new head from a cabinet. An uncredited Thomas Haden Church plays Death’s assistant and his deadpan line-reading adds to a lot of the humor. Finally, one of the film’s best jokes comes when its revealed that Monkeybone is not the first creation to hijack its creator’s body. In a dungeon, we meet Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper, Poe, and, amusingly, Stephen King who has some not-nice things to say about Cujo. That joke would have been even funnier if King had actually played the cameo himself, as originally planned, instead of the part falling to a decent impersonator.

Also providing a lot of humor is Chris Kattan’s late film appearance as the dead body Stu possesses upon re-entry into the human world. Kattan plays a deceased gymnast whose body is constantly falling apart. Kattan is a fairly terrible performer but this part, designed for exaggerated body language and gallows humor, plays to his strength. Brendan Fraser seems ideally cast as both a jee-whiz cartoonist and his cartoon creation run among. Fraser is certainly game and has no problem embarrassing himself to get a laugh. (Even if the laugh aren’t there.) A better film probably would have made better use of his talents. Finally, John Turturro voices the title character, whipping through the randy character’s bawdy dialogue with his husky accent. Monkeybone remains pungent but Turturro still dives in full force.

About the only consistently positive thing you can say about “Monkeybone” is that it is a Henry Selick movie, through and through. His visual sense informs the entire movie. More then once, his clever style of shooting livens up otherwise dull moments, like the camera moving around when Stu is signing off on various merchandising deals. “Monkeybone” is a total disaster and Selick’s utterly bizarre visuals are the only reason you keep watching. The movie’s massive financial failure probably should have meant the end of Selick’s career. And it nearly did, as he wouldn’t direct again for nine years. Notably, he’s never worked in live action since. [Grade: C-]

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