Here’s a story I may or may not have told before. It takes place on February 28, 2001. A few minutes before 11 am there was a 6.8 earthquake epicentered in the southern Puget Sound. I was at work and I saw some shelves wobble and a few things fall down, but nothing serious. Downtown there was some damage – some vehicles got crushed by falling bricks, and I remember a couple clubs where bands used to play in Pioneer Square (OK Hotel and Fenix Underground) were wrecked enough they went out of business. I called my roommate at home to make sure none of my stuff broke, and he made fun of me.
After work I went to Pacific Place to see this movie MONKEYBONE. All the advertising looked cheesy, but I was hoping it might be interesting because it was from Henry Selick, the director of THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. Unfortunately the advertising was pretty accurate. I remember a couple times during the movie something playing on a bordering screen made a loud rumble that vibrated the whole row I was sitting in. I thought about the three escalators I took up through the mall to get to the theater, and the fourth escalator inside the theater that goes up to the floor where this one was showing, and I thought, “That’s an aftershock, and the building is gonna collapse, and I’m gonna die watching fucking MONKEYBONE.”
Luckily the building and I both survived. But 20+ years later I was watching Henry Selick’s WENDELL & WILD and I thought, “I wonder if it would be worth rewatching MONKEYBONE? Maybe I’d like it better now? At least if I go in expecting it to be terrible, and without the fear of death?”
MONKEYBONE stars holy lord and savior of all millennials Brendan Fraser (CRASH [the bad one], BEDAZZLED [the bad one], THE MUMMY [the… one that people like]) as beloved genius iconoclastic underground cartoonist and “creator of America’s most disturbed comic strip” Stu Miley, who everyone knows for sure is about to be a huge fucking mainstream deal because he made a cartoon out of his strip Monkeybone and “the Comedy Channel has picked us up with an order of six episodes.” They do a big premiere event for the “pilot,” which is actually a 2 minute cartoon narrated by him explaining the premise that when he was a kid he got a boner in class and tried to cover it with his backpack and then a monkey named Monkeybone jumped out and danced around and stuff.
Everyone loves the “pilot” and seems to understand how this counts as a TV show and will definitely catch on huge – so much so that Stu’s agent Herb (Dave Foley, POSTAL) has already gotten companies to manufacture Monkeybone dolls, bop bags, backpacks, slippers, and telephones, and is working on a deal with “Burger God.” Stu makes exaggerated expressions of disgust to show he’s above all this, though he apparently has taken no steps to prevent it.
He hates all the attention and wants to get away from the event because for some reason he’s chosen the same day to propose to his girlfriend Julie (Bridget Fonda, KISS OF THE DRAGON), who of course is also the sleep institute doctor who cured him of his lifelong horrible nightmares (?). But as they’re driving away a giant Monkeybone balloon inflates in the backseat causing an apparently-supposed-to-be-funny car accident that puts him in an apparently-supposed-to-be-sad coma. Then at last, about ten minutes in, we get the first cool thing in the movie, when his spirit sinks into the stretcher.
He wakes up on a rollercoaster, depicted partially in Selick’s usual medium of stop motion animation, and holy shit when I was watching WENDELL & WILD it didn’t occur to me that it was kind of a redo of MONKEYBONE. In the newer one, “souls of the danged” are brought to an amusement park to be tormented, here it’s sort of a limbo for the souls of people in comas until they die or wake up. There are sub-BEETLEJUICE type jokes like there’s some suitcases next to a sign that says “psychological baggage,” with a notebook explaining the things that scared him when he was a kid (cyclops, minotaur, roadkill), which he then briefly encounters in this world of nightmares, and then the concept is mostly forgotten.
The place is called Down Town. There’s an old theater called the Morpheum where they watch people’s nightmares, and a bar called Coma Bar with bumper cars connected to i.v.s and a, uh… sexy cat-person waitress named Miss Kitty (Rose McGowan, CONAN THE BARBARIAN 2011) who seems to fall in love with him at first sight? (I’m not sure why there are animal people. If the theming of this thing ever made sense it was developed into mush.)
In the bar, an elephant plays piano and Monkeybone (stop motion, and voiced by John Turturro, BARTON FINK) dances and dresses as Marilyn Monroe and does boob jokes. You see, because the character inspired by Stu’s childhood boner is alive in his coma nightmares and he does wacky horny rascally stuff. Years before Pixar asked “What if emotions were people?” Selick asked “What if a boner was a monkey?”
When Monkeybone kisses Stu it’s possibly a reference to WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. The character of Roger Rabbit is intended to be a pain in the ass to Eddie Valiant but endearing to most of the audience. For Monkeybone they don’t even feint at the endearing part, they just make him hyper and aggressively unfunny. But well animated.
Meanwhile in the real world Stu’s older sister Kimmy (Megan Mullally, RISKY BUSINESS) is for some reason desperate to pull the plug on him, but agrees to allow him 3 months. And Julie discovers the Rube Goldberg device Stu set up to propose to her (featuring a cartoon painting of the two of them with Monkeybone – living happily ever after with his anthropomorphic hard-on). We learn that when Stu suffered from nightmares it inspired some great, surreal paintings (we see one that’s actually by Mark Ryden) but when she told him to try drawing with his left hand he created Monkeybone. Julie’s friend Alice (Sandra Thigpen, THE RING) seems to think the Ryden painting is garbage and it’s great that he switched from that to crude drawings of a dickmonkey.
When I say that Monkeybone represents Stu’s erection that is not some show-offy reading-too-much-into the movie thing. That’s seriously the premise. At the Coma Bar, Stu grabs Monkeybone saying “You have humiliated me in public for the last time” and demands he get into his backpack, a reference to the covering his boner with a backpack in class. He tells Miss Kitty that Monkeybone is “being repressed” but when she purrs at him Stu gets lusty and stares at her cleavage and Monkeybone climbs out.
There’s a part where the lights in the bar turn dramatically blue and an imposing Grim Reaper type figure enters, approaches an old man (Harper Roisman, “Mountain Man,” HALLOWEEN 5) and says his name. But the old man says, “Can’t hear you, young fella. Speak up.” I was genuinely laughing at the idea of Death not being able to take a guy because he doesn’t understand what’s being said, but it turns out it’s the opposite – the guy is given an “Exit Pass” to wake up from his coma. He puts on an astronaut helmet and gets fired from a highstrike into the glowing mouth of a stone Abe Lincoln. I liked the randomness, so Monkeybone ruins it by saying “Ah – honest Abe, The Great Emancipator.”
Stu gets invited to a pajama party held by Hypnos, the God of Nightmares (Giancarlo Esposito, NIGHT ON EARTH), where Medusa (Lisa Zane, FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE) is singing “Love is the Drug,” a Yeti (Doug Jones, FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER) is dancing, and Stu accidentally sits on a bug with a human face. As stupid as all this is I do have to appreciate that Esposito is playing a satyr with little puppet goat legs and he has a bee-woman girlfriend. Also Stu watches Julie’s nightmares on an orb and in the nightmare they cut the plug on him and his body deflates.
That’s definitely the best thing I can say for this movie: there’s way more random cool shit in it than in most movies.
Hypnos gives Stu and Monkeybone the idea to go to the Land of the Dead to steal an Exit Pass from Death (Whoopi Goldberg, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES 2014). They steal a shroud and line up with the souls waiting in a train station to be approved by Death, but a pug (a real one, not a dog-person) wearing a luchador mask pulls it off and exposes them as frauds. There’s some really embarrassing physical comedy in the scene, but Thomas Haden Church (SPIDER-MAN 3) is funny as Death’s right hand man, who for some reason notes that one of the deceased is a Seagal fan.
All they do is grab the pass and fly off on a sky-sled thing and then we have my favorite scene in the movie when Stu gets thrown against the Ryden painting and is briefly sucked into a three-dimensional live action/cg re-enactment of it. So it’s one of the few movies where there’s a Brendan Fraser face on a creepy root or larva baby body. I think it might’ve been him she gave birth to at the end of THE LORDS OF SALEM.
And shortly after that we have my second favorite scene, when Stu decides that because he briefly ran around with Monkeybone that he now loves him – “you’ve been a hell of a figment, pal” – and wishes he could take him back with him (!?!) and Monkeybone responds by hitting him over the head with a wrench and snorting “Love you too!” as he runs away with the pass, laughing. It’s the one and only time in the movie when I liked or agreed with one of these two characters.
Using the Exit Pass, Monkeybone is able to enter Stu’s body and wake up from the coma, pretending to be him. So in lieu of animation or cool sets we get Fraser pretending to be a horny monkey (with a soul patch) and poor Fonda has the impossible task of trying to seem like a reasonable adult while being in love with this annoying dickhead who smashes the cake she made for him, jumps around on top of the furniture and drools at nature documentaries.
While Monkeybone-as-Stu dreams about chasing women in bikinis wearing high heels running across a golf course and creates a purple hallucinogen to squirt out of farting Monkeybone dolls, the real Stu figures out how to return to the live world by taking over the body of a recently deceased gymnast (Chris Kattan, DELGO, FOODFIGHT!). So the climax is live action slapstick with stuff getting wrecked at a charity banquet and Kattan-Stu battling Fraserbone on top of a Monkeybone parade balloon.
Also we get two things that should’ve never happened after the ‘90s: a Harry Knowles cameo, and a scene where Fraser performs “Brick House” in a Guy-Fieri-ass-shiny-suit and everybody is really into it (except Julie, because keeps hip thrusting and looking up the dancers’ skirts).
Kattan was an SNL cast member I couldn’t stand at the time, but it’s honestly an impressive physical comedy performance, running around flopping parts of his body as if they’re broken. Isn’t it kind of crazy, though, that they replaced Fraser with a different actor for both the comedic and emotional climaxes of the movie? He doesn’t even dub the voice! Kattan gets to do his version of Sean-Archer-inside-Castor-Troy-talking-to-his-wife from FACE/OFF.
I do want to note that Bob Odenkirk (NOBODY) is funny as a doctor about to take organs out of the dead gymnast when he comes back to life. “Those are our organs – get back on that slab!” He chases the body around in a van and when he gets it back at the end he says, “All right, smartass, you prepared to cooperate now?” It’s such a relief in a movie like this when one of the things they put in there to be funny actually does make you laugh.
As always, Fonda gives a very heartfelt performance, despite playing this nothing character saddled with having to fiercely love a preposterous and annoying one. She had two more movies released later in 2001, but hasn’t done any movies since. Draw your own conclusions.
These things can change at a moment’s notice, but as of this writing I believe Fraser is considered this year’s best actor frontrunner for his performance in Darren Aranofsky’s THE WHALE. So maybe he can take the hit when I admit that I unfortunately think he is flat out bad in MONKEYBONE. That’s more negative than I like to be these days and it won’t win me any points with the millennials, but you can’t honestly talk about how much this movie sucks without admitting that even if it was good his performance would ruin it. He never seems like he becomes the character, he’s always visibly acting. When he’s the shy cartoonist hunching over and making awkward gestures I guess that’s what he’s going for, though he’s the dorkiest Cynical Gen-X Artist Unimpressed By Capitalism you’re gonna find. But in Down Town he’s mugging and yelling and doing his weird nasally grunts. His primary approach to comedy in this one is a less sophisticated version of David Seville yelling “AL-VIN!”
Usually when a movie is about an artist I assume it’s somewhat autobiographical for the director. For a second I considered that Selick might see himself as an artist from the counterculture struggling with whether or not it’s selling out to make mainstream stuff like this. But then I remembered he started as an animator on THE FOX AND THE HOUND and shit. About as underground as he gets is the creepy short Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions – but that was shown on MTV. We know him for NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, a movie that could not have been made without the resources of Disney. And I doubt he feels it was cheapened by all the merchandising; most of that came years later when the studio finally caught on that people loved the movie.
So no, I don’t think the story of Stu Miley creator of Monkeybone (as written by Sam Hamm of BATMAN fame) comes from the heart and soul of Henry Selick. It also doesn’t come from Dark Town, the comic book by writer Kaja Blackley and artist Vanessa Chong that Selick optioned even though it only had one issue and never continued. The comic has the premise of a guy whose soul is trapped in a strange world while he’s in a coma and he must escape before his plug gets pulled. But he’s not a cartoonist and there’s no irascible farting penis monkey.
In the comic, everybody in Dark Town (not Down Town) is a wooden puppet or marionette, which is why Selick wanted to do it. As he tells it on the DVD commentary (suspiciously left off of the blu-ray), it was originally planned to star Nicolas Cage as a puppeteer. That’s why when he goes into a coma he wakes up as a puppet and the movie becomes stop motion. Unfortunately, producer Chris Columbus (CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS) insisted that (get a load of this) audiences can’t relate to an animated character, so the lead would have to be live action the whole time. If he’s in live action the world of puppets thing is out, so they made him a cartoonist whose character becomes real (like COOL WORLD). And since it’s not a world of puppets anymore they figured they should save money by ditching most of the animation and having guys in costumes. (It still cost $75 million.)
Knowing that story, of how it went from a cool, straight forward premise to this messy jumble of compromises and penis jokes, I just don’t know how to not hate MONKEYBONE, everything it wastes, and everything it represents. But I know I shouldn’t. It’s a terrible comedy or fantasy, but it undeniably has more artistry and strangeness than even many actually good movies. The bits of stop motion are beautiful. Most of the sets and characters look cool, and the ones that don’t (mostly the animal people) are at least freaky. Some props look like something out of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and the general vibe reminds me of Alex Winter’s FREAKED. But sometimes a little more like THE MASK. In its best moments it’s like a Richard Elfman movie but using literally 750 times the budget of FORBIDDEN ZONE. Unfortunately it’s those things crossed with one of those shitty ‘90s Disney Channel movies that my generation can’t understand, and a bit of, like, a Pauly Shore movie, or whatever type of comedy thinks the funniest thing in the world is Dave Foley running around a fancy party naked with his face painted purple from getting farted on by a toy monkey. Do you get it though? You see his butt. All that and it’s got the Squirrel Nut Zippers stuck in my head.
It’s definitely fascinating that MONKEYBONE exists, but it’s not pleasurable to watch. Not as a whole. You can get some good screengrabs out of it. I guess I do like it more than COOL WORLD.