I’m getting awfully tired of defending Brendan Fraser, of saying or implying things like, “The only thing that saves this stinkweed of a film from itself is the fact that Fraser is so darn cute and charming.” So is it a good thing that I can’t even say that about Monkeybone? Is it a good thing that not even Fraser’s dorky adorableness can salvage this mess of a movie?
It’s not that Fraser’s unaffected comedy is starting to wear thin — he usually manages to be fresh and original, though some may see unwelcome reminders of George of the Jungle here — but that it’s completely at odds with the story that’s begging to be told. Director Henry Selick is shooting for the same effect that his minor masterpiece The Nightmare Before Christmas achieved, to make us laugh at things that also creep us out, but he fails on both counts. If Monkeybone was going to have any chance of succeeding, it needed either a more sly comic actor in the lead — maybe David Duchovny — or Fraser needed to be reined way in. And Selick needed someone to rein him in, too.
Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser: Bedazzled, The Mummy) is an artist, the creator of “America’s most disturbed comic strip,” “Monkeybone,” starring a mischievous little simian of the same name. Just as “Monkeybone” is about to take the leap into television — and all the creative aggitta that involves, like making decisions about merchandising and fast-food deals, things Stu would rather not think about — Stu is injured in a car accident and ends up in a coma. While his girlfriend, Julie McElroy (Bridget Fonda: Finding Graceland, Lake Placid), who also happens to be a doctor, tries to figure out a way to wake Stu up before his sister, Kimmy (Megan Mullally), pulls the plug, Stu is traveling a subconscious journey through the nightmare land of Downtown, a pit stop on the way to the hereafter.
Selick tries to make Downtown a fantastical carnival of souls, an eerie place full of bizarre creatures, the accumulated nightmares of humanity — which I’d bet good money it was in Kaja Blackley’s graphic novel Dark Town, upon which the film is based. Monkeybone (the voice of John Turturro: O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Cradle Will Rock) is there, too, an embodiment of Stu’s dark side, to taunt and tease Stu and generally act as his id, making lewd passes at feline cocktail waitress Kitty (Rose McGowan: Scream) — of course Hell has a cash bar — and complaining to Stu about his lack of, er, equipment with which to do anything more than talk.
What a brilliant opportunity to explore the inner demons that haunt creative types! From the fear of losing inspiration to the dread that comes with giving up control over one’s work, as Stu’s TV deal was threatening, writers and musicians and artists can be absolutely nutcases. Does this come across in the least in Monkeybone? Nope. Stu apparently has the most stupendous nightmares — the inhabitants of Downtown say they’re “like caviar.” Do we get to see more than a hint of them? Nope.
Instead, the nightmare here is the uncomfortable mix of CGI, traditional hand-drawn animation, stop-motion animation, and people in unconvincing costumes that look like something out of Disneyland. Big Styrofoam heads on human-sized bodies just aren’t frightening if you’re older then 4 (and the endless sexual humor makes this film inappropriate for anyone under 13). Downtown is an incohesive jumble of imagery that wants to be phantasmagorical but just ends up being so busy that there’s no focus to draw our attention, and so inorganic looking that it inspires skepticism rather than fear. The only truly nightmarish image in the whole film doesn’t even occur in Downtown, but in Julie’s dream of what will happen when Kimmy finally unplugs Stu from the life-support equipment that’s keeping him alive.
Characters appear without explanation or introduction, and the oddly paced story seems to have huge chunks missing from it — which make it feel as if the film climaxes way too soon. As if to make up for that, Monkeybone keeps getting more absurd in ways that have nothing to do with the story at hand, but merely serve to fill out the running time. And though Fraser deserves kudos once again for being so willing to look so idiotic on film, that’s not the kind of acting that was demanded here. Stu is never haunted that way he should be — Fraser should have drawn more on the inner angst that made him such a revelation in Gods and Monsters, rather than drawing on the goofball antics that made George of the Jungle so wonderfully silly.