Monkeybone

Directed by Henry Selick
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Bridget Fonda, Chris Kattan, Rose McGowan, Dave Foley, Whoopi Goldberg, Megan Mullally, and the voice of John Turturro.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for crude humor and some nudity.

Review by Matt Heffernan <matt@filmhead.com>
February 25, 2000

Sometimes I am shocked at just how bad a film can be. No matter the budget or talent attached to a given project, a good (or even competent) film is never guaranteed. I did not expect Monkeybone to be good. My prejudice was not based on the trailer itself, which I found quite enjoyable, in my twisted little way. It was the infrequency with which I saw this trailer that made me afraid -- very afraid. It was quite obvious that Fox was dumping the film by keeping the promotion costs down. They undoubtedly expect to lose money, and are only releasing the film in an attempt to recoup some of the huge budget. So far, it's the worst film of the 21st Century, and now I shall tell you why.

First, though, I should try to explain the plot. It should be quite recognizable to people who saw Down to Earth just last week. Brendan Fraser plays Stu Miley, a cartoonist whose creation -- a hyperactive primate called Monkeybone -- has just been made into a TV series (of which the episodes are only about two minutes long, but I guess there must be a lot of commercials). After a press screening of the pilot, Stu tries to get away with his girlfriend, Julie (Bridget Fonda), to propose to her, but they end up in a car crash caused by Monkeybone merchandise (don't ask).

Julie hasn't a scratch, but somehow Stu falls into a coma. He finds himself in a surreal purgatory called Downtown. He needs an "exit pass" to regain consciousness, and with the help of Monkeybone -- who exists in this world, along with several other nightmarish figments -- he steals one from Death (Whoopi Goldberg). In an odd conspiracy, Monkeybone steals the exit pass for himself, and ends up taking Stu's body, just before Stu's sister, Kimmy (Megan Mullally), is about to pull the plug.

OK, at this point you can see a slight similarity to the Heaven Can Wait story. This premise is explained in the trailer, and I was ready to accept it as being dissimilar enough to not be plagiarism. But then, by the end of the film, Stu's spirit manages to get another exit pass from death, and takes over the body of a gymnast played by Chris Kattan, who has already started donating his organs. Why am I giving this away? Because I don't want you to waste your money on the film, and to show you that just when you thought the film -- bad as it has been -- is trying to be original, it goes headlong into rip-off territory.

Plagiarism aside, Monkeybone still could have been made into a decent film. Instead, it is an incomprehensible, unwatchable mess. Director Henry Selick is making his first film that is mostly live action. He directed the wonderful stop-motion animated features The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach (which did have some live-action parts). Both of these films, however, were the execution of Tim Burton's visions, and the latter an adaptation of a Roald Dahl book. Selick puts some plasticine characters into the film (like the title character who is voiced by John Turturro), but his own version of surrealism is muddled and weak, especially when compared to masters like Burton and Dahl.

One thing I found quite troubling about the film was its lack of a narrative focus. I was unsure whether it was supposed to be a comedy, since it had no laughs and was often quite disturbing. It might look like a family film, but it is a strong PG-13, and would probably frighten young children. It did manage to frighten about half of the audience right out of the theatre -- and not a pre-teen among them.

Most disturbing, however, was the presence of my colleague, Harry Knowles, the editor of Ain't It Cool News, in a cameo. He's a friend of screenwriter Sam Hamm (Batman), but his probable bias did not even earn Monkeybone a positive review from him. Here are the first three sentences of his review:

I hate MONKEYBONE. I hate the film in a profoundly upsetting way. It is the film I dislike most this year, the film I'm angriest at.
Couldn't have said it better myself, Harry.


For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Monkeybone (2001)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
Monkeybone (2001) -- VHS
Monkeybone (2001) -- DVD


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Review © 2001 Matt Heffernan