“I was not alone when I was in Goofy hell.”
It has now been twenty minutes since I sat down on my desk to write. What I plan on writing, I’m still relatively unsure. I know there’s an idea residing just beneath the crevices of my subconscious. I navigate back and forth between ambition and writer’s block, unable to keep still; not unlike a particular stop-motion monkey high off the energy of certain sexual hormones. You see, whatever abstraction lies within my head is practically begging to be unleashed, but what will come of it? What will hath God wrought, these images? They come in bursts, like a cluster of icepicks to the brain. SNL alum Chris Kattan as an acrobatic corpse. Whoopi Goldberg as the very personification of Death. Giancarlo Esposito with goat legs. And finally, Brendan Fraser literally deflating on a hospital bed before our very eyes. It has now been twenty years since these images have come about my head in the most uncalled-for of ways. Whether I’m at work, doing laundry, or trying to reconnect with family. It is the burden, or perhaps complicated blessing, I have with Henry Selick’s 2001 mystery of a film–Monkeybone.
So we have a paragraph. Where do we go from here? Perhaps I may trace things back a little in this case. The films of my youth always lend themselves back to the work of Henry Selick – perhaps my very favorite director of animation working in the US. For me, it’s the bounty of little riches to find and feel in Selick’s work. The beautifully fluid camera movements in The Nightmare Before Christmas, or the warbled audio of Randy Newman’s score on my VHS copy of James and the Giant Peach, which perhaps was only due to my overusing of the tape. From his early MTV shorts to the recently uncovered footage of his 2011 Disney project, The Shadow King (whose production was tragically and infuriatingly cut short by the company), it’s the kind of work that feels specifically rooted in the hazy fantasy of 90’s animation. Nostalgia always feels inherent with Selick’s work, even with 2009’s Coraline.
So perhaps it’s appropriate to carry this over to my personal history with Monkeybone. Being four going on five, I was most prone to being kept at bay whenever I wasn’t in preschool by having a parent insert a DVD at random in our brand-spanking-new DVD player. And with formative memory just barely operating inside of my tiny head, the trailer for Monkeybone played like the kind of dream state you’re in when you have to wake up early but you haven’t drank coffee or showered yet. I barely knew anything about anything, but I knew what I felt was disbelief. Drawing back to this memory makes me remember that it may not have necessarily been The Nightmare Before Christmas – a film I watched obsessively as a kid, that informed my preference for stop-motion animation, but rather the trailer for an early 2000’s 20th Century Fox comedy that would turn out to be one that closes out with a rap-rock track. And so it goes.
Based on the graphic novel Dark Town by Kaja Blackley, Monkeybone is the horny odyssey of a cartoonist named Stu Miley – personified by Mr. Brendan Fraser. He has just premiered an episode of an animated series featuring his beloved original character, the titular Monkeybone. As he approves merchandise deal after merchandise deal, there’s a reservedness to Stu in regards to the exploitation of his creation. He can only voice this to his partner Julie, played by Bridget Fonda, who had helped him channel the imagery of his nightmares into canvases by changing his drawing hand. As Stu is on the verge of proposing to her, consumerism quite literally suffocates the couple, in the form of a giant inflatable Monkeybone setting off in their car and forcing them to back their way into an accident that renders Stu comatose. It’s here where Selick’s visual pastiche begins to surface. As Stu is put into a coma, he literally sinks below the ground and into some other realm of being, propelling downwards into Down Town, a vision of purgatory with the look and feel of an episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog. It’s a wondrous creation; a mishmash of stop-motion critters and hideously elaborate physical costumes, with a mere sprinkle of dated CGI. Down Town is occupied by the creations of those who end up there, which is revealed by the appearance of Monkeybone; the rapscallion himself, voiced by a helium-inhaling John Turturro.
At this point, it may be difficult to ponder how Selick, who at the time was nothing but celebrated for his first two features, would wind up with a project seemingly gone awry, especially with such a distinctive set-up. Because by here, we’re witnessing filmmaking that is, more-or-less, exactly akin to what Ray Harryhausen was doing in the 1950’s. The conglomeration of live-action and stop-motion-animated subjects; both technically physical entities, sharing the same space and screen, immediately recalls Harryhausen’s groundbreaking Dynamation technique that’s most prominent in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. There’s clearly care and fascination in these images and creations, even if what it’s revealed to amount to is the story of an immensely gifted artist gradually losing control of his own creation. Does this regard the story of the film or Selick’s removal from the film itself? Why not both?
What’s most frustrating here is that you can’t jot down the exact moment watching the film when his firing becomes clear. For the whole duration, Monkeybone is a movie seemingly at internal war with itself. For every ball-dropping “humorous” moment of dated raunch and masturbation innuendo, there are sequences that channel something inspired. These sequences are often carried out by the implementing of “Oneirix”, a chemical substance that gives violently nightmarish hallucinations to whichever creature it comes in contact with, even dogs. These sequences make the film responsible for its resemblance of a Farrelly brothers x Lynchian fever dream caught on early-aughts celluloid. It technically wouldn’t surprise me if people, besides myself, were reminded by the visuals in season 3 of Twin Peaks; desaturated, warped 50’s-kitsch textures somehow illuminated by said dated CGI. Time has only made Monkeybone more of a standout of its corresponding decade of release, which ends up causing me more pain to say that the movie is technically not good.
It is a confounding, frustrating, mostly cringeworthy affair. It reeks of interference from studio executives and unconfident producers who found it easier to remove its risk-taking creator from the equation, rather than let him see it through without compromise. At this point, it’s redundant to say that the film really only works when Selick is clearly behind-the-camera, yet it’s ironic how the story of his firing is equally, and unfortunately, as redundant. It’s very easy to jot down the various studio releases from that decade in which its production is just as fascinating as the product itself, but one can’t help but shift gears when the case regards Monkeybone. Because what we see on screen is something so unlike its contemporaries that it does nothing but ache when I think about what could have been if Selick was allowed to do his job. Many may consider how easier it seems nowadays to get the more “out-there” film concepts realized to their potential, whether it be crowdfunding or streaming deals, but the system does nothing but acclimate, and to draw it back to Monkeybone, that system is not unlike what we see through the commodification of Stu’s creation, but also the channeling of nightmares into product.
I won’t unravel the entirety of the story, for the sake of the morbidly curious, but through a vast series of events, Stu awakes in an altered state of mind, grows a soul-patch, and is immediately eager to further extend the branding of his art. As he meets with rows of executives, we almost forget that Stu creating Monkeybone was only founded on his ability to channel his fears (and to an extent, his fetishes) into his art. And over time, it’s mirrored in Down Town, where nightmares are revealed to be as much of a commodity and resource. Not unlike Monsters, Inc! But there’s not much beyond there to give it thought after watching. What you do get consistently, however, is a film gone Monkey Mode. A 100%-committed Brendan Fraser eventually shakes his ass and sings Brick House to a full house. A cat-like Rose McGowan murders a humanoid mouse. Stephen King is trapped in a limbo prison. The film is chockfull of appearances, some welcome (Chris Kattan and Bob Odenkirk in a wonderful subplot) and not-so (Harry Knowles…if you know, you know), and is just as bountiful with such a fascinatingly 2001 energy, regardless of its troubled lifespan. So if you have any recollection of that period, then you may just owe it to yourself. Bear witness to the nightmare juice.
Frida writing team member Justina Bonilla talks with Dr. David Wilt about the Mexican horror film El Vampiro in commemoration of its 65th anniversary.