Monkeybone (2001)

I have never been shaken to the core as hard or as frequently as I was during Monkeybone. Here is a movie born out of dreams — out of the nightmares of only the most imaginative and wicked-minded of people — that has the power to grasp and terrify. There is before Monkeybone, and there is after Monkeybone. You notice a few minutes into the movie that this is going to be an experience that you won’t soon forget. I know I’m going to have a hard time shaking it from my mind.

Monkeybone is a not a movie built on its narrative. In fact, the narrative serves to guide us from one creepy scene of images to the next, keeping it all together but never attempting to interfere. It’s a slapdash plot, one that is so simpleminded so as to not draw attention from what’s shown on-screen. It doesn’t want to be complex, and if it was, it would ruin the effect. You think about motivations, about characters, and about the situation, and that takes away the focus from the visceral and haunting imagery.

Nevertheless, there is a small plot in order to appeal to everyone. Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser) is a cartoonist whose main property, “Monkeybone,” is being turned into a television series. The creature of the title, so the legend goes, was brought into the world he lives in after his “master” had his first erection in middle school. Don’t worry too much about that, although you can already start to form disturbing pictures in your mind. Monkeybone is a troublemaker of a character, but he’s popular, and thus, so is Mr. S. Miley (get it?).

One day, after a celebration and an overload of merchandise, a car accident occurs which puts Stu in a coma. Despite his girlfriend — to whom he wishes to get married — working at a sleep institute, he is unable to be awoken … at least, right away. This would be too easy. No, we have to follow Stu into a dreamworld, one in which his Monkeybone creature is real, and where most of the creepy imagery — composed largely of puppets mixed in with some CGI — is held. We don’t spend forever here, but whenever we do, I was terrified.

Situations come to a boil, a couple of twists happen along the way, but it’s all done to allow us more of this insanity — this genius — and, more importantly, to scare the bananas out of us. Bad pun aside, Monkeybone absolutely horrified me primarily because of those images that it presents. It’s Burton-esque, assuredly, and you can see why: director Henry Selick was the director of the Burton-produced picture Nightmare Before Christmas. But there’s something about this film that was even creepier, even scarier, than Selick’s earlier films (which also include James and the Giant Peach.

I don’t know if I can explain it. Sometimes these things cannot be described with words. All I know is how I felt, and that feeling is something that I both wish and don’t wish upon anyone. I would hope for everyone to feel like this at least once, but at the same time, it’s a horrible feeling. Just to experience it is both a blessing and a curse, and I’ll be remembering Monkeybone for a long time as a result.

Perhaps its the mixture of CGI, of puppetry, and of clay-animation. It makes for an incredibly unique experience. Bringing all that together, and then adding in an almost sadistic sense of dark humor drew me in and wouldn’t let go. Even when we go back to the real world — through circumstances that I will not reveal but add a whole new level of absurdity — that sense of humor prevailed. IT was the running theme, the tie between two realities. Juxtaposing real life with dream world was magically effective.

The characters do not exist to be deep; they’re here to be interesting, and have to pull that off with only a few scenes. There are two “gods” in this dream world, Hypnos and Death, played by Giancarlo Esposito and Whoopi Goldberg respectively. They each only get a couple of scenes, but make their mark. A waitress named Miss Kitty (Rose McGowan) is in, perhaps, three scenes, but plays a pivotal role. Even Monkeybone — at least, the claymation version of him — only gets to appear a few times. He certainly manages to control the screen (and he’s voiced by John Turturro, so you know he’s at least going to be fun, if nothing else).

Sometimes, Monkeybone progresses too quickly for its own good. This is most noticeable in the beginning, when we’re just trying to get our bearings, but it wants to progress. A few other gags are drawn out, and we either not fitting with the dark tone of the rest of the film, or simply weren’t really funny. Its missteps are so few and ultimately don’t matter, though, and the experience and tremendous impact it has the potential to leave all but make up for a few flaws.

Monkeybone is an experience like no other. It has the potential to make you laugh — and often will — but it also has the ability to chill you to the bone. It certainly did that for me. I was scared all throughout, thanks in large part to the mixture of puppetry, CGI, and claymation, mixed in with dark humor and sometimes juxtaposed against the real world. It shows Brendan Fraser’s versatility as an actor, and while it’s not a narrative-driven experience, it’s something that you’ll struggle to get out of your head long after it’s done playing.

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