Just what happened to Monkeybone? Sounds like an "Unsolved Mysteries" case, doesn't it? Monkeybone had much promise when it was originally conceived. From what I've come to understand, by the time it hit theaters, Monkeybone had been ripped up and mangled so badly that no one was happy with the final product. It certainly was a loss for Fox; costing around $70 million to produce, Monkeybone slipped on its own banana peel and made slightly over $5 million. Ouch. If nothing else, Monkeybone had a very strange story and an eclectic cast, featuring Brendan Fraser (The Mummy Returns), Bridget Fonda (Lake Placid), Chris Kattan ("Saturday Night Live," A Night at the Roxbury), Rose McGowan (Jawbreaker, she also sold her soul to the devil by dating shock rocker Marilyn Manson), and Whoopi Goldberg (Sister Act). Director Henry Selick (Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach) tried hard to combine live action, stop animation and computer effects into one seamless film, but in the end hardly anyone came to see his valiant efforts. Fox lets the home viewing audience make its own decision with a special edition of Monkeybone on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Shy Stu Miley (Fraser) seems to have everything. He's got a devoted, beautiful girlfriend that he loves (Fonda), a pretty swank living area, and a career that's about to rocket into space with the creation of his cartoon strip "Monkeybone." "Monkeybone" has been picked up as a new series by a TV station, and Stu is about to see his lifelong dreams be fulfilled. It's all going groovy until Stu is thrust into a coma by a freak car accident as he's leaving the event.
From there he's whisked away into Downtown, a bizarre waiting land for people that are trapped in a coma limbo. Downtown is sort of like the works of Salvador Dali, Tim Burton, and H.R. Giger rolled into one terrifying package. Many of the strange creatures come from Stu's own subconscious and nightmares (which we find out is what fueled his creativity and art). It's in this land that he meets the real Monkeybone (voiced by John Turturro), an obnoxiously horny simian that's sort of an alter ego for Stu. Through some fast paced misadventures, Monkeybone is able to steal an exit pass from Death (Goldberg) and escapes from Downtown into Stu's coma induced body.
An animated monkey with an unruly hunger for sex and mischief is now running Stu's body. Stu has only one chance to stop Monkeybone from ruining his life on earth, and his chances with the girl he loves. Sound confusing? See Monkeybone and it will all (hopefully) make sense.
I literally dragged my good friends Mike and Melissa to see Monkeybone when they came to visit me a few months ago for their vacation. I felt like I was the only person on the planet that had any interest in seeing this film. I'll never be able to explain why a bomb or flop piques my interest much more than box office smashes do. I'll always be apt to see Monkeybone over something like L.A. Confidential any day. When the credits rolled and we walked out of the theater, my initial reaction was, "Well, that sucked."
I was soon given the chance to see Monkeybone again on DVD. I haphazardly decided to take it for review, fearing that I would have the same reaction with my second viewing. To my surprise, Monkeybone fared much better this time around. Let me start by saying that I can see why Monkeybone did a nosedive when it was released in theaters last February. I'm sure that the makers of Monkeybone were hoping that the solid core of Tim Burton fans would come out in droves, as Selick and Burton have collaborated on films together in the past. Selick's vision for Monkeybone is very Burton-esque (all the way down to Anne Dudley's score, which is laced with Danny Elfman-like themes), which will appeal to fans of such films as Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas and Batman (in fact, the writer of Batman, Sam Hamm, also penned Monkeybone). Some may think Monkeybone is genius. Others, I'm afraid, will be undoubtedly disappointed.
So what went wrong? Well, let's first start with what went right. Monkeybone is blessed with a very offbeat, original idea. Based on the comic book "Dark Town" by Kaja Blackley, Monkeybone gets points for staying off the well-worn Hollywood path. I can't remember the last time I saw a movie that incorporated together animated monkeys, the dead returning to life, a Cyclops, a marriage proposal, and Whoopi Goldberg as Death. I'm pretty sure that no one else can either.
If Monkeybone achieves nothing else in its 100 minutes of running time, it is at least offbeat and interesting. Though it doesn't always gel, the story tries to give the audience something to think about. A subplot about something called "nightmare juice" falls flat, but the rest is fairly fun fodder. The scenes that take place in Downtown are visually weird, a place filled with all sorts of horrors and oddball collections. Cockroaches with human heads, ghostly apparitions, a singing Medusa…it's never a dull day for Stu or the audience. No expense was spared for Monkeybone, and the sets and characters prove it. The stop-motion animation (utilized so well in The Nightmare Before Christmas) is blended in with the live action to make for seamless effects. Director Selick keeps the pace moving fast using inventive camera shots and crude jokes. Nothing says funny like a monkey doll that squirts pink gas out of its rear. Chris Kattan is very funny as a deceased gymnast whose body is possessed by Stu. Kattan has such energy and zing that it's too bad his performance was held for the very end of the film. Fonda is also good as Stu's long-suffering girlfriend, though she's given very little to do other than cry and mope while Stu lies helpless in his coma.
Monkeybone is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colors showed no signs of fading and were very bright. Blacks looked dark and solid with only a small amount of gray to them. No grain or dirt was present. A small amount of edge enhancement was spotted, though it was kept to the bare minimum. Though the picture is not as perfect as one would think (considering the film is only a few months old), it's still a very good presentation from Fox.
Audio includes both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1, as well as Dolby 2.0 Surround track. Both the DTS and the Dolby 5.1 track sound full and rich. Dialogue showed no distortion, and separate speakers were used well (especially during the scenes in Downtown). I was very impressed with how good both of these tracks were. The music is very bombastic, using the bass to good effect. The DTS track showed a bit more range, though either one of these will do fine if you own a surround sound system. Both the DTS track and the 5.1 are available in English, and the Surround 2.0 is available in French and English (everyone say it with me: "we-we" love the French!). Subtitles are available in English and Spanish, plus English closed captioning.
Monkeybone is packed with features that will make any DVD lover go ape sh…well, you know what I mean. First up there are ten extended scenes, plus an alternate ending. Most of the scenes are fun to watch, though don't add much to the finished product. Many are just a few seconds of extra footage that was cut from the original scenes. An alternate ending is also included, though it's not much different than what you'll see in the film. These scenes can also be watched with an optional commentary by director Selick (though a few don't include this feature).
A feature-length commentary track with Henry Selick is also available. The very first thing you hear is Selick's swipe at Fox and its logo. Otherwise, the track is slightly dry, filling the viewer in on the technical aspects of the film, plus casting choices, voices, et cetera. Selick is a bit somber throughout the length of the film, but it's an otherwise informative track.
Seven animation studies ("Monkeybone Secrets Revealed") with optional commentary is next. These sequences are the best of the extra features, giving the viewer a look inside the making of Monkeybone. Each sequence shows how tough it was to get Monkeybone to achieve its exceptional look (I was doubly impressed when I realized how hard it was to get the blue screen shots and live action shots melded just right), and both the director and the crew should be commended for their efforts.
Also included is a large conceptual gallery, featuring drawings and sketches made for characters and images in Monkeybone. Over 29 separate areas are include for exploration. It's a nice feature that really lets the viewer in on the start to finish ideas that shaped the final film. Many of the final concepts began as very different ideas, and then ended up as something completely different. Finally, there is a full frame theatrical trailer, as well as three television spots.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Monkeybone is not without its share of troubles. Disjointed at best, it's often a mishmash of ideas and stories that don't always come together in a very meaningful way. Much of the imagery never seems to connect with the story, almost thrown in so the effects guys can say, "Hey! Look what we created!" I like weirdness for weirdness sake, but some of the stuff was just dang strange.
Brendan Fraser has shown that he can act. If anyone saw him in the wonderful Gods And Monsters they've seen that he is able to bring realistic life to his characters. Even in the so-so Bedazzled, Fraser brings comedic wit and sparkle to an otherwise lifeless movie. Somehow he gets it all wrong in Monkeybone. Fraser is actually fine when he's playing Stu in the first half of the film. It's when Monkeybone takes over Stu's body that Fraser's performance tumbles downhill. Actor John Turturro voices Monkeybone with a manic glee while he's in animation mode. Fraser, on the other hand, plays Monkeybone in a more simplistic fashion, a dolt who is much slower than the animated character that we just saw. Fraser twists, grins and tweaks his voice, but all he can muster is general annoyance. You can see that the poor guy is trying…he just can't seem to get it right.
Monkeybone is definitely worth seeing if you're a fan of the odd or surreal. It's a semi-failed experiment that can at least be proud of its attempt at something new. Though it will probably end up in the record books as a major flop (and even on "Mystery Science Theater 3000" someday), it's better than much of the sludge that crawls out of the proverbial Hollywood gene pool. The disc itself is a good buy, featuring nice audio and visual features, as well as some great extra material.
I'm letting Monkeybone go free, even though it's guilty of many travesties. The fact is that the good outweighs the bad. Case dismissed!
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