directed by Henry Selick
(20th Century Fox, 2001)

Director Henry Selick, known for his wildly imaginative stop-motion animated and stop-motion (combined with live-action segments) fantasies aimed at children, The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, has another tour de force of creativity to offer, this time for slightly more mature audiences. Monkeybone, with live-action combined with a gamut of SPFX techniques, is a comedy-fantasy feature that is as wild and crazy as one might expect from Selick's previous track record.

Monkeybone is the eponymous cartoon character created (to release his frustrations) by the protagonist, comic book artist Stu Miley (handsome, expressive Brendan Fraser). It is a simian (voiced by John Turtorro) representing the id and the unbridled, unleashed libido -- the passion and sexual energy that lies within us all, usually surpressed by politeness and social etiquette. Stu, in the beginning of the film, is about to find some contentment after a period of emotional turmoil that seemed to have ended when he met the kindly sleep doctor Julie McElroy (gorgeous, blonde and smart Bridget Fonda). Before that Stu suffered awful nightmares that he the rendered in grotesque paintings but now he is enjoying Julie's love (he's intending to propose to her), and the imminent success of a Monkeybone TV series.

Left in a coma after a car accident, Stu descends into Downtown, a lurid otherworldly limbo, a fantasy realm where souls caught between life and death mingle with his most outré and feverish imaginings come to life.

Surreal, bizarre sets, actors in incredibly creative costumes and make-up combined with puppets, animatronics and CGI (credited to Bill Boes' brilliant production design) makes this netherworld convincing. Here, Stu's monkey alter-ego, very much alive and kicking in CGI form, constantly bedevils him. If viewers pay close attention, they will enjoy the complex plot that whips back and forth between the dreamworld where Stu must contend with Death (fabulously played by Whoopi Goldberg to hilarious effect in elaborate headgear, robes and a piratical eye-patch as she runs a corpus of grim reapers like a massive bureaucracy) and her brother Hypnos (Giancarlo Esposito done up in nifty make-up to look like a devilish satyr with his torso, through the miracle of CGI, grafted onto goat-like legs upon which he ambles about in totally realistic fashion), and the mundane waking world of the living where Stu lies in his hospital bed. Monkeybone has an agenda of his own and seizes control of Stu's body in ordinary reality in order to be free and independent of his creator, causing all sorts of havoc while Stu must confront the most powerful entities of the otherworld to try and get his body back. (It is refreshing to see African-Americans in such prominent, fantastical roles as rulers of the non-ordinary reality.)

Stu, in creating his Monkeybone cartoon -- a brief bit of this follows the opening credits -- converted terror into humor. The process is reversed in the first Downtown sequences of the film which then alternates between its garish, bizarre world, and ravishing black and white dream scenarios that are even more wild and extreme, pulsating with dark, primal and fearful life in CGI-enhanced segments that represent director Selick's creative genius at its finest.

Inspired by Kaja Blackey's graphic novel Darktown, the clever script and Selick's frenetic expressionism produces wacky and zany, wild and crazy, dense and richly layered results. Fraser really shines when portraying Monkeybone-possessed Stu -- leering, raunchy, outrageously uninhibited -- and is equally convincing as his mild-mannered, sweet "normal" self. Fonda is fine as Stu's goodhearted, loyal and courageous dream girl. Rose McGowan, delightful as Kitty, the literal sex-kitten costumed waitress who is Stu's sole Downtown friend, deserved a bigger role for her character, and Goldberg and Esposito are wonderful as previously mentioned. Another plus is Chris Kattan, amazingly funny as the re-animated corpse of a champion gymnast inhabited by Stu's spirit in a crucial climactic part of the plot that makes nutty sense in the context of the movie.

Ribald, outrageous, satirical, complex, incredibly imaginative (with dazzling sets, costumes, make-up and SPFX in the Downtown sequences) and an excellent soundtrack by Anne Dudley, Monkeybone borders on offensive with its sexual innuendoes and some bathroom humor, and it can be complicated. But the movie, by letting the fascinating intricacies of its plot and imagery carry one along, amply rewards the viewer willing to follow Henry Selick's wild flights of fantasy wherever they go.

[ by Amy Harlib ]

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