The character Monkeybone, the central figure in the new feature by the same title, was born of a small boy’s first public arousal. That alone should be enough to send audiences flocking to the theaters.
In director Henry Selick’s new film Monkeybone (Twentieth Century Fox), the reluctant hero Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser) thinks his life has reached its triumphant apex. His cartoon character, Monkeybone, the randy primate embodiment of an erection, has just been picked up by a Comedy Central equivalent. He plans to propose to his girlfriend and sleep therapist – watch out, the sleep therapist part is important – Julie McEhry (Bridget Fonda).
Things do not go according to plan. In an outrageous encounter, a piece of Monkeybone merchandise causes Miley’s car to crash, knocking him into a coma. He finds himself in the strange animated world of Downtown, where the unconscious go to socialize with fallen gods.
In Downtown characters and images flicker at an alarming rate. It hardly matters whether the personalities are remembered, because most rarely return to the screen. Secondary roles, such as a bull that mans a bar, introduce themselves and then fade into the background, never to be heard from again.
The plot follows a similar pattern, as one crisis segues to the next without resolving the last. In order to escape from his coma, Miley steals an exit pass from a very wry Death, played by Whoopi Goldberg. The living embodiment of Monkeybone then steals the pass from Miley, and, naturally, takes over his body in the land of the living.
Acting as Miley, Monkeybone goes on to create havoc in Miley’s career and love life, singing The Commodores’ “(She’s a) Brickhouse,” growing an unattractive goatee and doing other generally nutty things. But this is not the real crisis. It turns out that Hypnos, the god of sleep and boss of Downtown, conspires with Monkeybone on an even more ridiculous plan.
Brendan Fraser, who has had success in past comedies like Blast From The Past and George of the Jungle, struggles make a touching performance in Monkeybone. His serious moments with the perpetually watery-eyed Bridget Fonda (A Simple Plan) are forced and unconvincing.
“Saturday Night Live” star Chris Kattan (Night at the Roxbury) gives the best performance, and his plastic physique is better suited for onscreen antics than Monkeybone himself. Kattan’s presence saves the film when, after a slow animation-heavy first half, every piece of the plot is brought together in an absurd, Keystone Kops-style chase sequence.
The stop-motion title character, voiced by John Turturro (O Brother, Where Art Thou), is more Jar Jar Binks than Roger Rabbit, possessing a personality that is merely an amalgam of every cartoon character of the last 75 years.
The promotions for Monkeybone made much of director Henry Selick’s work on the stop-motion animated film Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas. Selick’s style bears more than just a passing resemblance to such Tim Burton films as Betelgeuse. Selick’s animated creatures, also seen in James and the Giant Peach, are entertaining and innovative, but they get in the way of actual plot and character development – a criticism often made about Burton’s work.
Despite a garbled first half, Monkeybone wraps up nicely. Once the focus turns to the real world, the film catches up with its own breakneck pace. After a shaky start, the sweet, inevitable happy ending makes the audience thankful the plug was not pulled with Miley stuck in a coma, leaving the audience stuck in animation hell.
Monkeybone is in theaters now