by Greg Muskewitz
The executives at Fox must think they are pretty clever --and I must admit, they are vulpine in certain respects. "Monkeybone," the new Brendan Fraser vehicle, is being promoted as the new movie "from the director of 'The Nightmare Before Christmas.'" That should automatically call up Tim Burton (because it was "Tim Burton's..."), and that's what the studio wants you to think. I know the ploy has worked, because other critics who missed the first screening were asking me to verify if it was Burton who directed. (Prior to, it even took me a few seconds to mentally confirm that this was in fact not Burton's project, which in actuality will be the remake of "Planet of the Apes." Burton's imprimatur was only from his producing credit with "Nightmare.") The actual director here, is Henry Selick, a visual effects pro.Stu Miley (take away the "tu" and you get "smiley") is the latest dumb character that Fraser further maldeforms. At the start, with the accompaniment of his girlfriend Julie (Bridget Fonda), is receiving accolades from his comic strip-turned-TV show "Monkeybone." (As we learn through an animated short during the show's "premiere," the named was coined for the description of Stu's erection as a child.) He's very pensive and reticent, but through his Monkeybone creation, has channeled his lighter side. Leaving the party, they get into a car accident, and Stu is thrown into a coma where he lives among his and others' nightmares and figments of imagination. The place is actually kind of cool, filled with everything from wasp women, to cyclopses, centaurs, etc. --almost like "Sesame Street" on acid.
"Accept no substitutions; total studio chicanery!"
There Stu meets his alter-ego, Monkeybone (annoyingly voiced by John Turturro), who does everything Stu is too afraid to do. In an attempt to escape, he and Monkeybone steal an "exit pass" from Death (boringly played by Whoopi Goldberg), but by chicanery, Monkeybone and the "boss" of the nightmare world Hypno (Giancarlo Esposito) use Stu for his help, and instead send Monkeybone back in Stu's physical body, leaving Stu in jail with other such victims (Stephen King, Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, Atilla the Hun, Edgar Allan Poe, Typhoid Mary, etc.).
Having been in the coma for three months, there is some tolerance for Stu's sudden change in behavior. That is where Fraser's hindering restraint wears off, and he goes for the typical and unfunny buffoonery is so good at messing up. In a promise to Hypno, Monkeybone must cause a great deal of havoc to create nightmares --what those in his world crave. So it perfectly coincides when he uses the "nightmare juice" Julie concocted to help revive him from the coma. The extended antics go on to have Stu return in another's body --cadaver, actually (Chris Kattan's), to help save the day and get the girl.
Aside my aversion and predilection to Brendan Fraser, it is quite a struggle for me to work myself up to going in with a clear mind --especially as the quality of his movies continue to drop ("George of the Jungle" to "Dudley Do-Right" to "Bedazzled"). And once you know it is Henry Selick's direction and not Burton's, you can see where Selick further infringes on and imitates Burton's "Beetlejuice." The puppeteer work is quite impressive and visually palatable, as are many of the special effects. But it is obvious where the effort and budget was used, because there were some pretty bad and cheesy effects as well. The two extremes of the effects balance each other out so that upon cogitation, it neither stands out in your mind positively or negatively.
Based on Kaja Blackley's graphic novel "Dark Town," there was a plethora of imagination, germinating like a dandelion in the wind. The problem is that the germination prematurely became stagnant. We never got to see enough of the imagination and unique world that was tantalizing us. Instead of introducing us vicariously to a new place, like we were in "Being John Malkovich" or "Dark City" or "The Cell," we are rushed to absorb as much as possible, and then fall back on the talentless physical schtick of Fraser. The script written by Sam Hamm causes us to disregard too much reality, but does not give us enough fantasy in return. It's all in tiny doses. There was enough possibility for creativity and originality that it made me want to read the graphic novel, but chances are I probably won't. Hamm's story absolutely ignored too many rules of life and death to play fair as well. (I did really like the idea of being catapulted into Honest Abe's mouth to be "emancipated" from the nightmare world.)
Lucky enough for us, or me at least, there were enough distractions and side-tracking events not to allow Fraser to wreck it all. Regardless, he still is a detriment to the movie, and it probably would have been a lot funnier if Fraser and Kattan's roles were swapped. Kattan does have the energy, the talent, the schtick, and skills that would make it work and shows how badly Fraser doesn't fill the qualifications. For his short time, Kattan was really the only source of consistent laughs. (Death's good line to Stu about his comic strips was: "It slays me!") One only wonders why actors like Fonda, Rose McGowen, David Foley, etc. bothered to do this, outside of the handsome checks they got in return. (McGowen occasionally goes for the "studio" movies only for the paycheck, I'm sure, just to she can continue her more successful string of offbeat indies.)
Selick fails to make anything here really commemorative. That isn't to say that he does it without some promise, because he has a knack for picking some wild things, but maybe his problem is not just laying in Tim Burton's shadow --maybe it's that he's a bit mimetic about it. However, when it comes to deft originality and warped creativity, I'll seek out the goods from those proven like Burton himself, Alex Proyas, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, Spike Jonze, Tarsem Singh, and any other number of true creators.Final Verdict: C-.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=1977&reviewer=172
originally posted: 02/23/01 18:06:09