"Monkeybone" is grand fantasy, in which Brendan Fraser and stylish design and energetic special effects play off one another for maximum fun.
This sassy Fox release teams "The Nightmare Before Christmas" director Henry Selick and "Batman" writer Sam Hamm in a sharp, dark-edged romantic comedy-adventure based on the comic-book graphic novel "Dark Town," written by Kaja Blackley and illustrated by Vanessa Chong.
Fraser's mobility of expression and movement and his easy sense of humor match perfectly with a fabulous nether world populated by fanciful creatures that is the seamless work of an army of artists and technicians. It's a cartoon-book universe made real via movie magic, yet has the free-flowing quality of animation.
We meet Fraser's Stu Miley at a crucial moment in his life. His comic strip, "Monkeybone," featuring the antics of a racy simian, is about to become a TV show, and he is also about to propose to beautiful sleep therapist Julie McElroy (Bridget Fonda), who has helped him overcome nightmarish sleep disorders. The rather intense and private Stu is not at all at ease at a garish media event announcing the series, especially as he is bombarded by dozens of proposed tie-in merchandise for his approval. Attempting to cut out early with Julie, Stu has a freak accident that lands his comatose body in a hospital and propels his spirit to a shadowy purgatory called Down Town, presided over by Hypnos (Giancarlo Esposito), a half-man, half-goat god of sleep, and his sister, Death (Whoopi Goldberg), who presides over Thanatopolis, land of death.
Down Town and the adjacent Thanatopolis are evoked with terrific wit and verve; they're splashy and jazzy, with more than a touch of the decadent and infernal. They're inhabited by a menagerie of fancifully grotesque and sinister creatures, most notably the irrepressible and treacherous Monkeybone (voiced by John Turturro) and also by such historic figures as Lizzie Borden, Rasputin, Edgar Allan Poe, Typhoid Mary, Jack the Ripper, Attila the Hun and Stephen King--the last apparently because of his own recent serious accident. These underworld denizens are sustained by the nightmares humans experience as they sleep in the real world.
Stu's ditsy sister (Megan Mullally) is overly eager to order the plug pulled on her brother, which prompts a desperate Julie and her assistant (Sandra Thigpen) to inject Stu with nightmare-inducing serum in an attempt to scare him into consciousness. Julie's ploy works, but Stu awakens as Monkeybone. He looks the same but he's pure, primitive id--uninhibited, greedy and obnoxious. In the nether world Stu has been tricked by his own creation; however will he now be able to escape?
Fraser, Fonda, Selick et al keep us guessing--and delightfully diverted. The way "Monkeybone" plays out is wacky and inspired. The film is baldly, wildly Freudian, if you care to look at it that way, but you're never hit over the head with these implications. The film is content to present an incredible journey of the imagination, darkly humorous and zesty in spirit--a love story with a transcendence set off by knockabout physical comedy instead of the usual shameless heart-tugging. Fraser's bravura slapstick, Jekyll-and-Hyde shenanigans are in turn set off by Fonda's devoted sanity. Esposito and Goldberg are slyly humorous; Chris Kattan has a wild turn as a brain-dead gymnast jolted back to life in the midst of becoming an organ donor, and Rose McGowan is a feline Down Town bar hostess drawn to the innate decency of the trapped Stu.
Production designer Bill Boes and the film's various artistic and technical staffers conceived of Down Town, that way station for the comatose, as a seedy amusement park with the feel of a prison. Prostheses, stop-motion, animation and much more Hollywood wizardry bring alive its bizarre inhabitants and painstakingly detailed habitat. The interiors of Stu's home and studio are that of a spacious, authentic-seeming Craftsman house with smart, practical furnishings and decor that avoid that strict retro Mission look, and for the film's grand finale, the original Beaux Arts section of the Museum of Natural History in Exposition Park and its venerable rose garden have been put to good use. Costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor, ultra-resourceful cinematographer Andrew Dunn and composer Anne Dudley are also major contributors to the film's shifting tones and its overall sense of edgy zaniness. "Monkeybone" is well-aimed to hit you in the funny bone.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for crude humor and some nudity. Times guidelines: too intense for the very young.
Brendan Fraser: Stu Miley
Bridget Fonda: Julie McElroy
Whoopi Goldberg: Death
Chris Kattan: Organ Donor
A 20th Century Fox presentation of a 1492 production. Director Henry Selick. Producers Michael Barnathan, Mark Radcliffe. Executive producers Lata Ryan, Henry Selick, Sam Hamm, Chris Columbus. Screenplay Sam Hamm; based on the graphic novel "Dark Town" by Kaja Blackley. Cinematographer Andrew Dunn. Editors Mark Warner, Jon Poll, Nicholas C. Smith. Music Anne Dudley. Costumes Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Production designer Bill Boes. Creature design consultant Ron Davis. Art directors John Chichester, Bruce Robert Hill. Set decorator Jackie Carr. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
In general release.