Monkeybone (2001) movie poster

(2001) director Henry Selick
viewed: 05/29/11

Though I’ve developed an appreciation for director Henry Selick, particularly for his most recent film, Coraline (2009), I’d never gotten around to seeing his one non-fully animated feature, Monkeybone. After his first two feature films, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996), which won a lot of acclaim, casting Brendan Fraser and Chris Kattan in a romp of live-action and animation story adapted from a graphic novel, Dark Town,  just didn’t quite look right.

Loaned to me by a friend who appreciated the film’s qualities among its weaknesses, I wound up watching it with the kids.  They actually liked it pretty well.

It’s a little bit Beetlejuice (1988), Brazil (1985), and a number of other things, but it’s not all that well-conceived.

The story is of a cartoonist with sexually-repressed though idealistic goals winds up in a coma, in a place called “Dark Town”, where all dreams and nightmares live.  There is a mixture of live-action, stop-motion animation, and other analog 2-D costumes and effects.  Some of the designs are striking and vivid, in the surreal nightmareland that they portray, but some seem like cheap knock-offs of things one has seen before.  The cartoonist (Fraser) wants to get back to reality but is tricked by his creation, Monkeybone who escapes to inhabit Fraser’s real-life body.

It’s actually a pretty convoluted narrative for such a short and strange little film.

The biggest problem is in the characters themselves.  Fraser, who is likable in the benign tumor sort of way, is far from being up to the effort of ranging from regular guy to manic nincompoop.  And Monkeybone, the raging Id of Fraser’s character, voiced as he is by John Turturro, is a poor attempt at a vital, perverse creation.  There are flashes of possible genius, but mixed in with low humor and weak execution.

The resultant effort has some merits but is a gaunt hodgepodge of surreal, witty, and lame.  And it’s kind of a shame.  There are elements here that could have made a film as good as Beetlejuice or Brazil but it certainly didn’t come together.  If anything, Chris Kattan was a big obstruction to my seeing it.  It turns out that he has a very small role and is actually quite good as a re-animated corpse trying to win his sweetheart’s love.

Like I said, the kids enjoyed it.  Felix noted that he thought it was pretty funny.  It’s not atrocious, but it’s kind of atrocious in my opinion.  But it has its charms as well.

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