Stop-motion animation innovator Henry Selick, the cheerfully demented director of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach," tries his hand at a feature-length hybrid in the new Brendan Fraser comedy "Monkeybone" -- and he makes a real mess of things.
Leaning heavily on its low-brow antics and animated effects, the story -- about a cartoonist in a coma who slips into a purgatory of creepy creations -- is sloppy, choppy, and so egregiously abbreviated that the actors don't even have time to give their characters personality or appeal.
Fraser is the cartoonist and the creator of a comic called Monkeybone, about a Puckish screwball simian whose raison d'etre is causing trouble. As the film opens Fraser's manager (Dave Foley) has just cut a deal for an animated series that will bring in millions in merchandising. Our hero's only real character trait, besides being a bit skittish, is that he's not very comfortable with greedily cashing in on his cartoon character.
On the night he's about to propose to his girlfriend (Bridget Fonda), he's in a car accident that leaves him catatonic to the outside world. But inside his head he enters a Selick-styled netherworld where Whoopi Goldberg is Death (she sluggishly sleepwalks through the role) and the zany, mischievous Monkeybone (voiced by John Turturro) is alive and anxious to sabotage his creator.After much rudderless (but brilliantly animated) high jinks, the monkey crosses over into the waking world by hijacking Fraser's body, with the help of the nefarious god of sleep (Giancarlo Esposito), who demands in exchange that Monkeybone help generate more nightmares for his amusement.
One of many plot points made possible only by the flimsiest of coincidences, Monkeybone attempts to accomplish this by stealing a "nightmare juice" formula concocted by Fonda (she's a sleep study scientist), and mixing it into the stinky powder that shoots out the backsides of stuffed Monkeybone dolls that are designed to pass gas when squeezed.
Long before this wisp of a plot, "Monkeybone" has galloped off madly in no particular direction with Fraser strapped into the quickly slipping saddle. The story is rushed, the editing seemingly handled with a chainsaw and the characters are so vaguely drawn that when Monkeybone takes over Fraser's body, you don't really recognize his personality because, short of being obnoxious, animalistic and horny, he doesn't have one.
Aside from the occasional pop-culture gag (Steven King has an uncredited cameo as an imprisoned denizen of purgatory), "Monkeybone" is such a scattershot story that without its fascinating visuals it would be almost unwatchable. It has neither the heart to be whimsical nor the guts to be bawdy, as was clearly the original intent. (The sexual euphemism of the name Monkeybone, and all that that symbolizes, gets severely watered down for the sake of a PG-13 rating.)
Even Selick's unmistakably eerie yet peculiarly plucky stop-motion creations are rendered virtually inert by being mixed in with a messy jumble of CGI effects, puppets and people made up in Halloween-ish greasepaint as demons or critters.
The creative, capricious movie "Monkeybone" could have been peeks through from time to time. Nightmare sequences are particularly vivid (Fonda dreams of pulling the plug on the comatose Fraser and his body deflating and melting away) and there are strokes of inspired slapstick. In order to pursue Monkeybone in his body, Fraser comes back in the rotting corpse of an Olympic gymnast with a broken neck. Normally insufferable "Saturday Night Live" vet Chris Kattan is perfect as that rubbery remnant, whose organs were being harvested when he popped back to life. Through all his scenes Kattan is being chased by livid transplant doctors who want his guts back.
If the whole movie showed that kind of creative clarity -- instead of lurching forward in fits and starts triggered by plebeian gags and sketchbook characters -- "Monkeybone" could have been a quirky, risqué "Roger Rabbit."
Now that's a movie I would like to have seen.