“Life couldn’t be better for cartoonist Stu Miley. He has created a hit comic strip featuring Monkeybone, a petulant rascal with a penchant for wise cracks and racy antics. Stu, happy and in love with his beautiful girlfriend Julie is on the verge of big success, as his comic strip is about to become a national television show. But on the night Stu is to propose to Julie, he is struck down in a freak accident. While Stu’s body lies comatose – and Julie maintains a constant bedside vigil – his conscious spirit is transported to Down Town, a purgatory-like limbo existing between life and death. Down Town has a carnival landscape populated by mythical gods and creatures who revel in the nightmares of the living. Upon his arrival, Stu learns his ominous fate: There’s no turning back and, just as things seem like they couldn’t get any worse, Stu’s alter ego, Monkeybone, springs to life to stir up some trouble. Now Stu must outwit Death in order to return to the world of the living before the doctors pull the plug on Stu’s body. But Monkeybone has hatched his own plot that could thwart Stu’s plans.” (courtesy IMDB)
After attending film school, Henry Selick went to work for Walt Disney Studios as an assistant animator on such films as Pete’s Dragon (1977) and The Small One (1978), eventually becoming a fully-fledged animator on The Fox And The Hound (1981). Selick’s first full-length feature as director was Tim Burton‘s production of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) followed by James And The Giant Peach (1996), a live-action/stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl‘s classic children’s book. That same year Selick discovered a little-known comic book by Kaja Blackley called Dark Town, and the striking graphics and bizarre story – a puppeteer in a coma trapped in a limbo world between life and death – quickly caught his eye. Over the next few years Selick would option the rights to the comic, team with writer Sam Hamm to create a screenplay and partner with producer Chris Columbus and his 1492 Productions. The end result is Monkeybone (2001), an irreverent and darkly comic odyssey into the recesses of one man’s mind.
Though Selick had initially envisioned a much simpler production with a live-action real world and an all-animated puppet world, the project’s evolution into a more mainstream movie, and the need to hire a name actor, changed all that. Recognising that audiences would want to see lead Brendan Fraser throughout the film, Selick changed the puppeteer protagonist into a cartoonist, and entertained the notion of shooting the coma world as a live-action environment extended and enhanced through computer graphics. The problem of how to realise the character of Monkeybone remained however, and various strategies were considered before Selick finally settled on traditional stop-motion animation: “For Monkeybone, I had felt that some form of animation was the best approach from the get-go but, unlike the films I’ve done in the past, this was more of a studio show, and the studio wanted to explore every option.”
Concepts tested included putting a small actor in an ape suit, as well as combining the head, arms and torso of a live performer with rod-puppet monkey legs (an approach that proved hilarious in execution but was unfeasible given the limitations). In the end, the story itself would dictate the best solution for the character. “At the beginning of the film, Stu is confronted with all these lucrative merchandising deals, but he’s an artist who’s not ready to sell out. So I had made it a very strong point that Monkeybone, when he comes to life in Stu’s dream world, is this bad merchandising doll that our protagonist had earlier rejected. That story point really helped convince us that stop-motion was the way to go.” The decision, however, meant that an entire operations pipeline would have to be devised to handle the two-hundred-plus shots in which the animated character was prominently featured, interacting closely with live actors in real environments.
The movie opens with a cartoon of the simian star (by Spaff Animation) which turns out to be a screening hosted by television network executives courting advertisers and toy merchandisers for their newest comedy show. Unaccustomed to his newfound celebrity status, Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser) quietly slips away with his girlfriend Julie McElroy (Bridget Fonda) and is involved in an auto accident. As an ambulance races him to hospital, Stu slips into a coma and a seemingly alternate reality, in which he finds himself sinking into a void through a Stu-shaped hole in the gurney and deposited into a rickety roller-coaster dropping down toward a giant spindly structure in the shape of a fist. The fingers of the hand unfold to reveal Down Town, a fading rundown carnival town nestled in the palm of his hand. Coming to a stop, the roller-coaster deposits Stu at a way-station for coma patients like himself, run by an odd assortment of half-animal half-human creatures.
Stu soon discovers a stowaway in his backpack, none other than his own cartoon invention, Monkeybone (voiced by John Turturro), now come to life as a springy plush toy. Stuck in Down Town, Stu attends a party and views a nightmare Julie is having in the real world, and discovers that he is soon to be disconnected from his life-support. The sequence, one of several black-and-white nightmare scenes depicted in the film, begins innocently enough with Julie and Stu picnicking in a field of flowers. The hillside suddenly gives way to a much darker image as people begin spiralling up through the ground to surround a now comatose Stu strapped in his hospital bed. Clinking champagne glasses and waving party balloons, the assemblage toasts the unconscious patient while a doctor (Leon Laderach), wielding giant shears, cheerfully snips an umbilical cord extending from Stu’s navel, causing him to deflate into a limp puddle of flesh. With little time remaining before the real plug is pulled, Stu learns that the only way back to reality is with an exit pass issued by Death (Whoopi Goldberg) herself.
Determined to steal one, he and Monkeybone sneak aboard a roller-coaster headed to Thanatopolis, where Death resides. Thanatopolis is an ornate railroad roundhouse where trains hauling the souls of the dead arrive and depart through an intricate network of tunnels. Disguised as the Grim Reaper, Stu gains access to Death’s office, snatches a golden exit pass and beats a hasty retreat, smashing through a plate-glass window. As the alarm is sounded, Death demonstrates her displeasure by erupting into one of her head-exploding tantrums. Jumping aboard a train headed back to Down Town, Stu and Monkeybone are pursued by a menacing Super Reaper named Arnold (Scott Workman) who swoops down on a winged motorcycle. Just when it seems as though the interlopers are about to make good their escape, a nightmare mural descends like a curtain in front of the train, sending Stu flying into the canvas where he is absorbed into the scene.
In the black-and-white world of nightmares, Stu becomes the star of his own worst-case scenario, literally a vegetable with a human head attached to a carrot-like body. Hovering menacingly above him the surgeon – with a giant head and a grotesque floating eyeball connected to a brainstem umbilical emerging from his eye-socket – prepares to sever Stu’s real head and replace it with a tuber. Moments before the surgeon’s axe finds its mark, Monkeybone saves Stu by reaching into the painting and yanking him out. Once they are safely back in Down Town, however, Monkeybone double-crosses his creator and steals the exit pass in a scheme to inhabit Stu’s body and mass-produce nightmares for Hypnos (Giancarlo Esposito) and his gang. An exit ride launches the little ape astronaut-style through a portal opening in the skies above Down Town for the return trip to reality. With the raunchy Monkeybone possessing his body, Stu awakens from his coma literally a changed man. Quickly embracing his creator’s fame, fortune and love-life, Monkeybone soon forgets his deal with Hypnos, until a nightmare jogs his memory.
This nightmare sequence begins with Stu-Bone happily running after some skimpily-clad lingerie models on a grassy golf course. Soon he finds himself mired in a sand-trap as the landscape begins to shift into something darker and more sinister. Only his head is visible above ground when Hypnos approaches in a golf-cart, strides to the sand-trap and prepares to clobber Stu-Bone’s head as if it were a golfball. Later, while Stu-Bone is cavorting in the land of the living, the real Stu manages to return to Thanatopolis and convince Death to send him back to the real world just long enough to say goodbye to Julie. The temporary body he is given, however, turns out to be a deceased athlete whose organs are about to be harvested by a team of surgeons. Much to their consternation, Organ-Donor-Stu (Chris Kattan) revives, wraps gaffer tape around his exposed insides and sets off in search of Monkeybone, dropping the occasional organ along the way.
He tracks Stu-Bone to a fundraiser where a wild showdown ensues and the two end up hanging from ropes attached to a giant runaway Monkeybone balloon being used as product placement at the event. Tangled in the ropes of the rapidly deflating balloon, Stu and his nemesis – still struggling with each other – plunge to the earth with a sickening thud. But their fall continues on into the afterlife, through the skies of Down Town where the ground begins to tremble and open up as a twenty-metre-tall colossus – a mighty warrior clad in Japanese ceremonial armour – punches up through the ground to catch the plummeting figures in his outstretched hands. A door pops open in the chest of the colossus revealing Death inside a large machine room, working the controls of the mechanical giant Wizard-Of-Oz-style. Setting things right at last, Death claps the hands of the colossus together, sending Monkeybone back into the mind of his creator, and then propels Stu back to the real world with a flick of its enormous mechanical finger.
I don’t know how he did it, but somehow Henry Selick got his hands on US$75 million to make a movie that was only ever going to appeal to a small handful of odd moviegoers. Monkeybone is a visually delightful, darkly funny and totally refreshing fantasy film full of wonderful visual effects, likeable characters and a style that combines everything from Brazil (1985) and Cool World (1992) to Eraserhead (1977) and Hellraiser (1987). Much of the film’s art bears a resemblance to that of Mark Ryden (Stu’s pre-therapy painting is very similar to Ryden’s The Birth and was painted by him for the film), Magnus Carlsson and, of course, Tim Burton. The film also contains a number of references to the pop-culture religion known as The Church Of The SubGenius, including Yetis, golf and Burger God. Monkeybone does have its flaws, but I get the distinct feeling that they might be the result of some behind-the-scenes tinkering by studio executives to make the movie more mainstream, most obviously when Stu first arrives in Down Town (actress Rose McGowan, who plays Miss Kitty, insists Selick was fired before the film was complete).
The sequences seem rather rushed and poorly plotted – there were eleven deleted/extended scenes on the DVD I recently viewed (including an alternate ending) which didn’t really help, but the stuff they left in is pretty good. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing sometimes: Stu’s monochromatic nightmares; Bob Odenkirk as a organ-hungry doctor; Chris Kattan is outstanding as Organ-Doner-Stu; Dave Foley does well as Stu’s manager; even Whoopie Goldberg has fun as Death. But the real stars here are the fantasy characters who inhabit Down Town. As in The Nightmare Before Christmas, the background characters are just as cool-looking and diverse as the leads, even more so in this particular case. It’s a shame that more time isn’t spent exploring Down Town or Thanatopolis rather than the real world, and this might explain in part why the film was able to recoup only 10% of its enormous budget.
Because of this huge loss to 1492 Productions and 20th Century Fox, Selick was not allowed to direct another film until almost a decade later, when he made the CGI animated film Coraline (2009) based on the book by acclaimed author Neil Gaiman. Receiving positive reviews and nominations for Oscars, BAFTAs and Golden Globes, all was forgiven and Selick was invited to join Pixar and Walt Disney Studios in a long-term contract to exclusively produce stop-motion animated films. Selick’s first film under this deal, a project called The Shadow King, was set to be released in 2013 but Disney pulled out after Selick spent more than US$50 million on the movie, leaving him to proceed with a completed script and recorded voices, but no backing and no release date. It’s with this rather sad thought in mind that I’ll make my farewells, and ask you to hit the highway to hell with me again next week while I drive you to delirium to witness another car crash on the boulevard of broken dreams for…Horror News! Toodles!