While I did put up another poll on Twitter for the movie that I should watch & review next, I haven’t had time to fit in the 3 hour cut of Batman v Superman just yet. So in the meantime, I had a little bit of time the other night and decided to toss on this film which is currently streaming on Netflix. It’s a movie that I had watched many years ago because I’m a fan of weird animation and dark fantasy movies. I remember generally liking this film, but never had a real desire to revisit it or own it. Watching it again now, I really appreciate plenty of the visuals and designs on the fantasy world, but the overarching story that drives the plot forward leaves a lot to be desired, especially everything that happens in the real world.
This film is one of the few films directed by Henry Selick, probably most well known as mistaken for Tim Burton when he directed the Nightmare Before Christmas. This film fell between James and the Giant Peach and Coraline and is the film with the most live action elements in it, even though James and the Giant Peach had some. Monkeybone was based on the comic miniseries Dark Town that itself was never actually finished, at least in publication. Interestingly enough, within the comic, everyone in the other world had button eyes which would make an appearance in Selick’s next film. Monkeybone takes some elements of the comic, but fleshes it out with a very different story about an animator who falls into a coma and is trapped in this world that is a mix of his imagination and a sort of purgatory.
One of the more frustrating things about this world is how ill defined so much of it is. We are introduced to this world when Brendan Fraser slips into a coma after a freak car accident. He then falls down into the ambulance stretcher and on down into “Downtown” in a really gorgeous sequence. But the first elements of Downtown that we are shown are from Fraser’s suitcase of “emotional baggage” including several drawings he made as a child that suddenly appear in claymation form. This leads us to believe that we are experiencing a world created solely from his imagination. And yet later on in the film, it turns out that this is an actual place with gods such as Hypno, the god of sleep, and Death herself and is also populated by other people who are in their own comas. This is complicated by the fact that there’s also this convoluted plot so that people will somehow have more nightmares for Downtown’s entertainment and possibly their sustenance.
Another frustrating element of this film seems to come from possible studio interference. There is very much a tonal disconnect between much of the dark imagery used throughout the film and the often sophomoric physical humor. This film could have worked a lot better if it was allowed to explore the darker undertones of this world outside of a few brief moments. Especially when it came to the ultra-nightmare sequence that looked like an image that was a cross between David Lynch, MC Escher, and HR Giger. It was set up to be this intense sequence, but it ultimately played out more like a motion comic and it was over after only a few moments.
There were still plenty of good elements throughout the film, the production design especially is spot on with a combination of several different special effects techniques to bring Downtown and everything else to life. From a handful of stop motion animated characters like Monkeybone himself to plenty of characters with animatronic faces to some traditional animation and even what looked like some subtle CGI animation for the Picasso-esque bull bartender. The entire vista of Downtown with the look of a giant metal hand also feels very reminiscent of Nightmare Before Christmas though there is a subtle difference that removes it from the well known Tim Burton style. Rose McGowan even has a small role as a catgirl waitress who ultimately helps Fraser but also gets to have one of those darker moments when we see her viciously attack a rat guard. The sheer variety of creatures and designs really help bring life to the world, especially considering their use of non-human proportions often using oversized faces and undersized bodies in many varied proportions.
The plot of the film is really where it all falls apart, especially once it gets to the point where Monkeybone returns to Fraser’s comatose body instead of Fraser himself, which isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility as Monkeybone is essentially Fraser’s id. But Fraser as Monkeybone doesn’t so much play it as an id, but instead as a literal monkey. A monkey that gets turned on while watching the National Geographic channel. The one aspect of his character that does work well is how he manages to incorporate monkey-esque squeaks and grunts into his speech while making it feel as close to natural as possible. It also falls too far into the fantasy realm once Death herself boots Fraser back to the real world in the body of a recently deceased Chris Kattan who is supposed to be a world class gymnast. There is the absurd aspect of the team of organ donor doctors trying to collect his organs while he is still running around, but it’s helped by the physical performance of Kattan as he rolls his head around as if his neck was broken and walks as if he barely has control of his limbs. While the entire concept of what is going on doesn’t entirely make any sense, Kattan does his best to sell it. I haven’t even mentioned the literal nightmare fuel or Megan Mullally playing his sister who seems desperate to pull his plug. It would make sense if his sister was either set up to be some sort of villain who wanted him dead for some sort of inheritance or life insurance, or if she played it more sympathetic and meant what she says about their pact against staying on life support. But instead, she plays the character as this typical heartless and flippant character who can’t wait to pull the plug on her brother without having any weight to it at all. And to wrap things up, Fraser’s fiancee played by Bridgit Fonda who basically has no real personality to speak of other than to be Fraser’s love interest. She has a small amount of agency, but for the most part it all ends up being ineffective. It really is a good concept, with great designs, but it’s too bogged down by a nonsensical plot and once they get out of Downtown, I just don’t care anymore. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.