Chimp trick

Movie: Monkeybone

Our Rating: 3.00

There's an animated sequence in "Monkeybone" that underscores the theme of this dark, manic comedy, an odd piece of otherworldly fantasy from director Henry Selick (Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas). Body suits hanging on human figures are unzipped and -- voila! -- out jump some randy, leering, out-of-control primates. Such a creature, we're to understand, dwells inside each one of us -- an id waiting to break the restraints posed by the superego, a horny Bill Clinton straining under the shell of every God-fearing politician with a public image to protect. John Hiatt's saucy, double-entendre tune "Little Head" makes an apropos soundtrack. Freud would have approved.

In Selick's feast of live action and stop-motion animation (inspired by the graphic novel "Dark Town"), the victim of long-buried impulses is Stu Miley, a talented, sensitive artist played by gifted comic actor Brendan Fraser. Miley is responsible for Monkeybone, a hugely popular cartoon character best described as Curious George run amok. He's a rude creature, insanely energetic and equipped with a wisecrack for every occasion -- the seeming opposite of his creator.

Miley has a love-hate relationship with his newfound commercial success. He'd rather spend quiet evenings with his girlfriend, Julie (Bridget Fonda) -- a scientist in charge of a sleep-disorder clinic -- than hang out at glitzy parties to schmooze with his unctuous manager (Dave Foley) and the businessmen who hope to merchandise Monkeybone's image around the globe.

An unfortunate accident with a prototype for a blow-up toy lands Miley's body in a coma. His soul, meanwhile, takes a scary roller-coaster trip to a spiritual limbo known as Downtown. It's a place populated by innumerable human freaks and rubberized, anthropomorphic creatures: The Grim Reaper rides by on a scooter, Satan shows up as Siamese triplets, and a busty, feline creature named Kitty (Rose McGowan) does her best to tempt the visitor. Whoopi Goldberg is funny as a short-tempered but basically good-natured Death, a powerful ruler who keeps a set of screw-on heads on standby for those times when her own head explodes. Giancarlo Esposito is impressive as Hypnos, a wicked satyr who's the fun-loving Hugh Hefner of Downtown.

Miley, it seems, may be consigned to a long future of drinking martinis at a joint that's stranger than the "Star Wars" cantina, enjoying bizarre carnival rides and watching the nightmares of those back on the conscious plane -- the most popular hobby of Downtowners. Even more disturbing is the sudden materialization of Miley's alter ego, Monkeybone (a stop-motion puppet with the voice of John Turturro), an obnoxious, uncaring showboat who constantly places immediate gratification above the needs of others.

Frustrated by his status as a figment of someone's imagination, the wily critter snatches the Downtown exit key away from Stu and returns to Earth to inhabit the body of his creator, just moments before Stu is removed from life support by his evil, airhead sister (Megan Mullalley). The new Stu, really the monkey in disguise, is sex-starved and greedy, ready to cash in on the cartoon image and quick to forget any romantic commitment to poor Julie.

Selick's adoption of the venerable body-switching plot (also employed in the current "Down to Earth") has the real Stu returning to Earth in a borrowed frame and searching for a way to defeat Monkeybone. "Saturday Night Live" regular Chris Cattan nearly walks off with the picture as the corpse on loan, a dead gymnast brought back to life. Cattan is a rubbery delight as the decaying Olympian, his broken neck flopping left and right and his organs popping out of his body at importune moments. Also watch for Harry Knowles, editor of the once-controversial Ain't It Cool News website, who has a quick cameo as Miley's slob of a neighbor.

Despite its highlights, "Monkeybone" is ultimately a silly, creaky, pop-art contraption that short-changes its serious philosophical and psychological underpinnings in favor of juvenile gags and gimmicks. It's best to dwell on the film's tilted, color-saturated production design -- courtesy of Selick collaborator Bill Boes ("Nightmare," "James and the Giant Peach," Sleepy Hollow) -- which is simply a wonder to behold.


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