There doesn’t seem to have been a good movie starring a simian since the original “King Kong” back in 1933, and “Monkeybone” will certainly leave the record unblemished. A “Beetlejuice” clone with more grotesquerie but far less mirth, the frantically slapstick farce from Henry Selick (director of the marvelous “Nightmare Before Christmas”) is so strenuous you can almost see the sweat roll off the screen. Unfortunately, it’s more irritating than funny.
The picture’s based on a graphic novel (the euphemism for an expensive comic book) called “Dark Town” by Kaja Blackley, and centers on a socially inept cartoonist named Stu Miley who’s in the first flush of major success deriving from his creation of an animated simian called Monkeybone (voiced by John Turturro) who, we can tell from an introductory clip, engages in all sorts of ribald acts to embarrass the humans around him. Stu, a rather retiring fellow, is also finally ready to propose to his long-time girlfriend Julie (Bridget Fonda), a research chemist. But before he can do so, he’s clobbered in an accident and winds up in a coma; while his body’s kept alive in the hospital, his spirit goes to a sort of halfway house between Life and Death called Downtown, the realm of dreams and nightmares overseen by the satyr-like ruler Hypnos (Giancarlo Esposito), where Monkeybone also resides. Stu tries to escape this limbo by sneaking into the kingdom of Death (Whoopi Goldberg) and stealing an “Exit” card back to the world of the living, but Monkeybone, in a plot hatched with Hypnos, instead uses the card to take over Stu’s body–their plan is to release a gas invented by Julie to enhance nightmares and thereby bring joy to the denizens of Downtown. To prevent the now-awakened but monkey-possessed Stu from completing this scheme, the real Stu persuades Death to give him a loner body in which he can try to foil the plot (an ill-timed twist, since it’s distinctly reminiscent of the recent “Down to Earth”); it turns out to be the rotting corpse of a dead gymnast (rubber-limbed Chris Kattan) which persistently sheds organs while being pursued by a bevy of doctors trying to harvest them as he frantically tries to stop Monkeybone. The big final confrontation is between Kattan-Stu and Fraser-Monkeybone-as-Stu, with the fate of the world and Julie literally hanging in the balance–atop a hot air balloon, no less.
This fractured, feverish plot is a wacky Freudian fable in which Monkeybone obviously represents the id of the repressed Stu, the seat of all those animalistic drives which societal demands have forced the poor guy to suppress. (Writer Sam Hamm italicizes this when he has Stu’s spirit pick up his “Psychological Baggage” on the way to Downtown.) So the joke is that when the racy simian takes over his creator’s body and acts like the lascivious, freewheeling character he is, it’s as though all the cartoonist’s inhibitions had suddenly been jettisoned and he can go along with all of his most primal urges. This premise could conceivably have been the basis for a hilarious picture–especially starring Fraser, who’d seem to be the perfect choice to play a Monkey-Man, having previously done nicely as a guy raised by apes in “George of the Jungle”–but it ends up seeming rather limp and lame despite all the slapstick, simply because the writing is so pallid and formulaic. Fraser does all the pratfalls, contortions and wide-eyed reactions demanded of him, but he never crosses the line from exertion to charm; he’s working much too hard to very little effect. Fonda, meanwhile, is utterly wasted as Stu’s fiancé; the role could just as well have been played by a mannequin. And Kattan’s shtick, which has a certain gruesome joviality at first, is dragged out so long that by the end it merely seems unsavory–like one of those SNL skits in which Kattan so often appears that overstays its welcome by a considerable margin. Esposito is simply dull as Hypnos (having his head stuck onto a goat’s body can hardly have energized his thespic motivation), but even at that he’s more interesting that Goldberg, who smirks and walks through the role of Death as though she were still in the center of the Hollywood Squares. (She brings nothing like the wry sense of bewilderment with which William Sadler endowed the Grim Reaper in “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.”) Dave Foley, as Stu’s boss, is stuck with a part that’s a series of embarrassments, culminating in a scene that requires him to run around naked with green paint on his face. And, sad to say, the animated Monkeybone himself is an annoying little twit who wouldn’t survive half a season even on Comedy Central. (He’d probably be replaced by yet another airing of SNL reruns.)
The makers of “Monkeybone” have gone all out with the special effects, of course, aiming to endow Downtown and Underworld with some of the same dark glamor that Halloween Town possessed in the far superior “Nightmare Before Christmas.” But the result lacks the enchantingly visionary quality of the earlier film (perhaps because it lacks Tim Burton’s uniquely personal perspective); the picture looks seedy and second-rate by comparison, at worst resembling a more perverse recreation of the elaborate sets and costumes that used to be featured on old Krofft Brothers TV series like “H.R. Pufnstuf.” That’s hardly a compliment.
The over-the-top combination of slapstick, grossness and excessive SFX that permeates “Monkeybone” may appeal to the more primitive instincts in some members of its audience, but most viewers–unlike its poor, possessed protagonist–will retain enough of their rational faculties to dismiss the picture as the rather sloppy, inane farce that it is.