Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Director Report Card: Henry Selick (2001)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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-]