Monkeybone represents director Henry Selick’s well-meaning attempt to disrupt the live-action realm with the furious might of his expressive, cocaine-addled stop-motion cinema. While his previous efforts behind the camera were all compromised in one way or another (often to their benefit), this deeply uncentered film is the most immediately adept at cracking into his singular mind. While The Nightmare Before Christmas was an acolyte of Tim Burton and James and the Giant Peach indebted primarily to the Roald Dahl tradition, Monkeybone feels like Selick in his purest form, Selick unhinged. And also, perhaps necessarily, Selick on a reckless rampage that leaves him both struggling to handle the reins and at times completely distracted from the havoc his feral beast has wrought.
An unmitigated box office failure of improbable proportions, Monkeybone also left Selick without a career until Laika resurrected him to direct his masterpiece Coraline for their debut production. And Monkeybone certainly is at some level an abnormally and uniquely inhospitable, broken picture, so the failure can’t be said to be a surprise. Still, released around the turn of the century, Henry Selick’s Monkeybone is an attempt to take comedy in a direction, whereas most films from the same time period (the late ‘90s and early ‘00s are the platonic ideal of aimlessness in comedy) don’t even understand what direction means.
That Monkeybone mostly ends up flailing around without a center is maybe beside the point, what with its crazed production design carnival and deranged, spasmodic attempts at enrapturing us with its mise-en-scene serving primarily to introduce us to a world without a center in the first place: the world of the unconscious. Rather than an example of scrambling around to locate a sliver of an idea, as with most comedies, Monkeybone is instead the product of Selick’s and screenwriter Sam Hamm’s over-exerted ambition, a cacophonous mess of a film with a crazed, overstuffed bucket brimful with exhaustive bebop. Its busy nature, replete with enough cinematographic flourishes to strangle the staunchest of middlebrow types, feels more comprehensive than accidental, like a hyper-active carousel running rampant around normality rather than a work that aims for regularity and comes up short. If it fails, it’s certainly not because of timidity or malnourishment.
Beginning with an intentionally idiotic short film – the cartoon adaptation of main character Stu Miley’s (Brendan Fraser) Monkeybone comic that is inextricably good at recreating the shaggy-dog animation style of adult-minded ‘90s cartoons – Monkeybone thankfully wastes little time getting down to it. Which, for this film, means less time spent waiting around in limbo before we get to … limbo, a warped, disreputable, stirred-up version of the human unconscious mostly composed of people in interstitial, liminal states between life and death known as comas (a state this film derails and decries via its sweating, hyperventilating, almost dementedly reckless bid for life).
From there, the film descends into a defiled, Boschian nightmare of neurotic impulse and bedeviling anti-clarity. Within, Stu, trapped in a coma, ricochets between Death (Whoopie Goldberg) and her more unscrupulous bother Hypnos (Giancarlo Esposito) in a desperate, flailing bid to return to the world of the living. Of course, he is undone somewhat by his creation Monkeybone rendered now in vivid, clay-mation life as part of his unconscious and hell-bent on replacing Stu in the real world. At this point, narrative clarity is, let’s say, not a premium in this film. Selick’s style and Hamm’s screenplay struggle to match the id-speckled comedy-terror of Sam Raimi’s whiplash cartoon versions of equally untrammeled emotion, but the kinetic pandemonium of the film’s emotional entropy is effective anyway, if not always as inspired as it thinks it is. Even at its most schizoid, the film throbs with the primal energy of Bill Boes’ expressionistic production design and thrives as pure cinema, if nothing else.
Adapted from Kaja Blackley’s “Dark Town” comic, the film is not well attended by the conscious, reasonable mind; its successes are nearly overwhelmed by its torrid editing, but its admittance into a realm of demented fantasia and askew, manic fetish ultimately overwhelms the distracting quality of the questionable humor. The failure of the film as comedy is a struggle, but it’s never a true albatross; mere comedy, or any other singular emotion, would be like erecting an armistice when this uninhibited, devilish film is prepared for a war. Monkeybone’s foray into the shadow realm of the unconscious mind and all that good stuff survives its indiscretions and chemical impurities with sheer vividness and brio, with Selick clearly unrepentant about the hell he has unleashed. The impish look of the piece – like an even more outré visualization of Sam Hamm’s work adapting another comic, the fruits of which became Tim Burton’s two Batman pictures – is satisfyingly unholy and effortful, an unchaining of Selick’s id and a reflection of everyone’s. I mean, good god, a comedy with actual framing! And composition! When the film’s toxic elan is firing on all cylinders, that it isn’t actually a good comedy is almost beside the point.