[Guilty Pleasure Film] Monkeybone
Henry Selik is a master of stop-motion animation and the owner of one twisted, weird and grisly humorous imagination. His filmography includes festive favourite Nightmare Before Christmas, the offbeat Roald Dahl adaptation James and the Giant Peach and the entrancingly sinister Neil Gaiman adaptation Coraline. Yet tucked between these successes in his filmography is a utterly strange and absolutely nonsensical box office bomb that just so happens to be an endearing childhood favourite of mine. Panned by many Monkeybone is a great example of good intentions leading to a poor outcome. For me though, it holds one hell of a charm and a soft little clay spot in my heart.
Monkeybone is based around the comic book Dark Town written by Kaja Blackley and illustrated by Vanessa Chong, that tells the story of Jacques, a man in a coma who must fight strange marionette style creatures who want to take over his body and plague the world with nightmares. Selik fell in love with the book and began working on some twisted designs and enlisted screenwriter Sam Hamm, known for writing Batman and Batman Returns, to adapt the script. All of this hints at the idea that Monkeybone was possibly intended to be a much darker film overall, but as the project developed it took numerous narrative transgressions which, to me, stinks of studio interference combined with a lack of faith in the film.
The film combines live-action with stop-motion animation conjuring comparisons to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beetlejuice and, in some of it’s creepier scenes, the Evil Dead franchise, but maybe that’s just me. It’s premise is a bit messy so therefore it’s hard to pin it down to a particular genre, but I think dark fantasy romantic-comedy that delves into playfully bizarre visuals combined with nightmarish imagery covers it best.
Stu Miley is as self deprecating as any artist, putting his own insecurities into his work and loathing any success that is seen as commercial instead of creative. His most successful creation, a comic book about a cheeky little orange monkey with an uncontrollable libido and no self control, is about to make him super famous. There are plans for a crap tonne of merchandise and an animated show, the clip from which seems to be the exact type of show that would actually be welcomed on AdultSwim nowadays, dealing with children’s trauma and personifying (or monkeyfying) their uncontrollable ID. Stu isn’t welcoming of all this attention and his head is elsewhere, filled with plans to propose to his girlfriend Julie, a sleep therapist that pulled Stu out of a dark time and helped him overcome his debilitating nightmares. While attempting to back door it as his own event he and Julie end up in an inflatable monkey related car accident that puts him into a coma.
This is where the film really shows off its stunning design and otherworldly visuals. As Stu sinks into the bed we enter the nightmare realm of Downtown. It’s dark and twisted, yet I want nothing more than a DisneyWorld style ride that takes us on the same tracks. If that set still existed I would visit it every single halloween and never get bored. So this is my official petition to start a Monkeybone world and make sure it’s fantastical, nightmarish and just safe enough to not get shut down. Downtown is incredibly effective, and with its expressive carnival aesthetic and amazing character design, combining claymation, physical props and live action it is a feast for the eyes and imagination. A huge well done to the production designers and everyone involved in every single costume, prop, set and piece of clay in this film.
Stuck in this purgatory, Stu now has to race against time to get back to his body before the plug is pulled in the real world. This is another moment that needed more exploration, specifically through the character of Kimmy, Stu’s sister. She’s pushing for the plug to be pulled, because of the pact her and Stu made after the trauma from their father passing slowly and probably spending excessive time hooked up to machines. It would make her concerns, and want to pull the plug, valid and would make her seem like less of a one sided ‘bitch’ character determined to kill her brother. Just as his life support is about to be turned off a miracle happens, Stu awakens! Only it’s not Stu, it’s Monkeybone, a capitalist, sex hound here to grind bedposts and spread nightmares. And what’s the easiest way to show the audience Stu is evil now…give him a soul patch.
As Monkeybone runs amok in the real world Stu is granted one last chance to save everyone from nightmares and tell Julie how much he loves her. It’s a strange and hilarious final act with Stu inhabiting a borrowed organ donor body, played perfectly by Chris Kattan an SNL alumni exemplifying some severe physical comedy chops, as he’s being pursued by money, and organ hungry, surgeons screaming “We don’t want to hurt you, we just want some organs!”. What this film lacks in cohesion is more than makes up for with outlandish and bawdy set pieces like this one.
The themes of Monkeybone are a little on the nose and boldly Freudian, the Monkey on his back, his hidden ID, his psychological baggage and his nightmares coming to life, all set out to teach him how to live without fear and embrace a repressed side of himself. This is combined with the rest of the narrative which involves the figments wanting to spread nightmares to the real world, using Julie’s nightmare juice, by sending Monkeybone upstairs in Stu’s body. How do they intend to guarantee the distribution of this nightmare spray? With a Monkeybone toy that releases a gas when his thumb is removed from his bum…yup, that’s a plot point. There’s a real scathing view of the consumerist society as well hidden under the strange narrative of this unique, if at points misguided, movie. It’s a lot to fit in 93 minutes.
Underneath the messy aspects there are hints of genius and some beautifully macabre imagery. With art inspiration taken from Swedish illustrator Magnus Carlsson and American painter Mark Ryden, who’s painting The Birth is heavily referenced in one of Stu’s nightmares, there are scenes in this film that would make H.R Geiger and David Lynch happy. The opening sequence is almost the comedy version of the opening sequence in Seven with art supplies and monkeys instead of psychotic diaries and weapons. In a scene where we delve into one of Julie’s nightmares the imagery is utterly traumatic, watching Stu slowly deflate into an empty skin bag as a grotesque crowd of onlookers smile and laugh. Add in a purgatory prison with Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, Lizzie Borden and Jack the Ripper and we’ve got one hell of a messed up party.
Fraser is charming as ever, no matter how much they try to ruin him with the curtains hairstyle. He works well with an ‘imaginary world’ something that’s no easy feat and even manages to scream lines like “I’ll be right back after I choke my monkey.” with a straight face and pure conviction, letting his charm and charisma carry us through this strange little world. He has been done dirty by the industry, and he is one of my favourites from the late 90’s early 00’s era. Clearly people believed in this film as the cast is pretty huge for the time it was made. Bridget Fonda plays Stu’s girlfriend Dr. Julie McElroy, Whoopi Goldberg is Death, Giancarlo Espisito is the God of Sleep Hypnosis, Rose McGowan is Miss Kitty, and of course Chris Kattan as the possessed organ donor, even the legend Doug Jones is here as a Yeti.
This is definitely a film of two worlds, one very adult and one for children, which is exaggerated by the production company clearly not trusting the movie to make money and recutting it multiple times to create a Frankenstein monster that could have been something so much more. It seems to be a mix of too smutty for kids and too nonsensical for grown ups. Yet, for fans of fantasy and whimsy on the cusp of discovering horror it’s perfect, it’s not safe for a super young audience, but it’s a good gateway film, just like Tim Burton’s works, that can push a teen towards the darker realms of cinema. I would love more stop motion and claymation in horror and I’m sure I’m not alone on that. Maybe when I first saw this eccentric film it was just the right time and right place to make me love it, and I highly recommend people give it another chance. Release your inner monkey and give into the pure insanity and joy of Monkeybone!