It’s one thing when a movie has so many problems that it was never going to be any good (i.e., Battlefield: Earth, Dungeons and Dragons), but it’s another matter when a few fatal flaws sink a film containing frequent bursts of brilliance. What’s maddening is that you’re watching the picture distracted by the constant thought, “Man, this could have been fixed.” Though around two years in the making, no one seems to have ever fixed the problems of “Monkey Bone”.
Underground cartoonist Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser) has long been the cranky, gloomy sort. Two events have made him a lot better than he used to be, though. Long plagued with nightmares, Stu went for help at a Los Angeles sleep institute where he met the love of his life, Dr. Julie McElroy (Bridget Fonda). With her guidance the artist began to channel everything repressed in his subconscious through a new comic strip character, Monkey Bone. It’s become such a hit that as the story begins, Stu’s simian id is about to become animated as the Comedy Channel’s hot new cult TV show.
This lucky role sadly lasts only as long it takes for Stu and Julie to try to drive away from his first big promotional shindig as a freak accident leaves Stu in a coma. His big surprise comes next as he finds himself traveling from the earth to a surreal village floating in a void partially inhabited by people in a similar physical state. Ruled by the Dream God Hypnos (Giancarlo Esposito), the majority of the residents turn out to be monsters and creatures from the dreams of the human race. Most annoyingly, one of the locals turns out to be Monkey Bone (voice of John Turturro). Now about three months later Stu realizes that he has a much bigger problem. He’d made a pact with his sister Kimmy (Megan Mullally) that if one of them was stuck in a coma, the other wouldn’t waste time pulling the plug. With little time left, he finds only one option. To return to the world of the living, Stu will have to steal a treasured golden exit pass from Hypnos’ sister Death (Whoopi Goldberg). Monkey Bone offers to help his creator, but his motives might not be in Stu’s best interest. Before he comes around to what’s really happening, he finds himself in much deeper trouble, MONKEY TROUBLE. Now he has to find a way back to the waking world fast before Monkey Bone can destroy it.
Henry Selick was a somewhat obscure but rising animator before Tim Burton and producer Denise Di Novi brought him up to the next level to direct “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach”. “Monkey Bone” is Selick’s first feature without his mentors, and it’s a mess. Obviously the filmmakers are shooting for another “Beetlejuice”, but the final product leans dangerously closer to Ralph Bakshi’s extremely muddled “Cool World”. Based on Kaja Blackley’s graphic novel “Dark Town”, it demonstrates what seems to be some very basic script problems. When creating a whole fantastic world, the story needs to express at least a few ground rules. If that doesn’t happen, an audience new to the world may not quite understand what’s going on and not be able to connect to the characters. Artistic flights of fancy may be great, but a narrative feature needs a somewhat structured environment like the one we take for granted in more reality-set movies. When Stu arrives in his purgatory, it’s not clear whether all of the strange locals are figments of just his imagination, of the subconscious of all of the coma victims, or of possibly anyone’s dreams. Their powers or the town’s physics are never really explored. Also, if the coma leaves our hapless hero stuck there, can ordinary people visit the place when they dream? The relationship of this place with all of the world’s dreams is never nailed down with the film basically treating the town as just a big funhouse. At least in “Beetlejuice” the newly dead couple got an operation manual for their new state. Even if they promptly lost it, it’s more than Stu got.
“Monkey Bone” has other problems. The first two thirds don’t seem edited well at all as the tone and pacing are all over the place. I wonder if Selick and his producers were waffling between going for a dark edgy tone and a manic comedy, because the movie teeters between the two, even within a single scene. It’s so choppy that you might think there were bits removed all over the place. Again, the film hits its stride in the last third (around the time Chris Kattan turns up in a very important part as a newly departed “organ donor”), but spending an hour in the dark wondering where they’re going with this is a little too long.
But you know what? Despite all the problems there are many bits scattered throughout that are amazing. All the artistic effort that went into it produced some fantastic results. Of course those segments are sandwiched between other bits that just lay there and don’t go anywhere, making for a largely frustrating 90-minute experience. Aren’t the writing and the editing supposed to be the cheap parts of making movies? It didn’t have to turn out this way. If only Selick and the studio could have taken a little more time, then they wouldn’t have had to waste ours.