Revisiting Monkeybone's Nightmare Imagery
You remember Monkeybone right? The 2001 stop-motion/live-action black comedy farcical fantasy from Henry Selick, the Director of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline? No? That's a shame. Because whilst it's definitely not a 'good' film, it's certainly an interesting one. And sometimes, that's even better...
Monkeybone stars my best friend Brendan Fraser and is based on an unfinished comic series by Canadian cartoonist Kaja Blackley named Dark Town, about a man who is trapped in a strange town populated by marionette puppets after slipping into a coma in the real world. However, the residents of Dark Town are trying to kill him and take over his body on Earth as a vessel for their plans, the only thing preventing him is his weaponised imagination, which he carries around constantly in a red suitcase. Sounds like it'd make an amazing movie right?
Unfortunately what we got in 2001 was a heavily-truncated version that relied on the illusion of adult humour (swipes at South Park are abound whilst retaining a PG-13 rating) and a hit-and-miss pile of gags that mostly relied on Fraser's committed performance. The plot now concerns Stu (Fraser's) hit cartoon creation Monkeybone (a fowl-acting monkey) inhabiting his body on Earth, allowing for just as many silly shenanigans as you can think of. The whole thing reeks of studio interference if you ask me, but there are still a few saving graces.
For one, the stop-motion animation is gorgeous. Of course, you learn to expect no less from someone like Selick, but the hybrid of it and live-action is on some Who Framed Roger Rabbit? level at points. If it had committed to it throughout its runtime, I'd have no doubt this film would be considered a technical masterpiece. (Sidenote: it also goes to show how good Brendan Fraser was in the family-blockbuster role, he can act opposite anything believably whether it be mummy, dinosaur or...Daffy Duck). Alongside that the art direction and set design for 'Down Town' is impeccable. It's a nightmare circus filled with blink-and-you'll-miss-them details and characters that shine on a page rather than on-screen. There's also a scene where Stu's soul inhabits the body of a recently-deceased gymnast (Chris Kattan) who is midway through an operation to remove all of his organs for donors. That idea alone and how the film handles it is enough for you to give Monkeybone your time.
There are distinct tonal clashes the entire way through the film however. Signs of a troubled production are everywhere, and it seems as though the studio wanted to keep everything family friendly (or as much as possible, the whole title is a dick joke). With this in mind, I'd like to take you through some of the concept art from the film's development phase...
Inspired by the work of Mark Ryden, 'Down Town' or 'Dark Town' as it was called through development actually ended up fairly close to its original idea. A demented amusement park filled with bright lights and strange creatures, though the majority in the film are costumes rather than puppets unfortunately. There are other locations and concepts that didn't make it to the final product, such as this delightfully surreal ocean where souls plummet and are picked up by other residents. Monkeybone is filled with a world that could tell hundreds of stories.
Then there are some Dave Hughes-like character sketches ripped straight out of a pen-and-ink nightmare. Yes, in Down Town the pigeons do have human heads and some can be seen smoking cigars, it's exactly as traumatising as you're imagining it.
They're accompanied by Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers from Roman mythology who were raised by a she-wolf. Down Town features extensive references to a host of different cultural mythologies, from the Egypt-inspired sphinx characters and architecture to the portrayals of well-known fables. It's just a shame that none of them are particularly focused on within the film itself...
As part of the film's narrative there's an exploration into characters' ultimate nightmares, and during a particularly weird sequence where Monkeybone (inhabiting Stu's body) uses a Scarecrow-like nightmare gas on a dog we're treated to something you'd find if Cats & Dogs was given an R-rating. Of course, I'm assuming during the development phase that the film was aiming for a more adult audience, as the nazi-cats never actually made it to the finished product, but it's still a nice look into the kind of demented imagery that the whole production team was going for. What we ended up with instead was a nightmarish neutering from farmer cats that lean more into the surrealist vibe that the rest of the film plays with.
However this is nothing compared to Stu's nightmare. Whilst trying to escape from Death (Whoopi Goldberg - yes, really) and her army of death Stu is captured and forced to endure one of his recurring nightmares. Throughout the film there's fleeting references to the character's passed and his trouble mental health, to the point where Julie (Bridget Fonda) actually helped him overcome such intrusive thoughts in order to let his creativity give birth to the character of Monkeybone. Of course this is at the expense of densely-creative and often-disturbing paintings and images that we're only fleetingly shown. The repression Stu has had to go through in order to just settle for making dick jokes in a crudely-animated style is...disheartening and it's a shame that the film doesn't dwell on this notion more (it instead tends to go after the 'integrity' route in regard to Stu and commercialisation). There's so many interesting ideas that fail to make an impact that it makes Monkeybone one of the rare curiosities that's worth seeking out just for the justification of knowing that it exists.
Well, that...and then there's THIS.
Yes, that's Brendan Fraser's head occupying an Eraserhead-style baby on an operating table as a sentient tumour-creature operates on him and keeps him alive. This made the PG-13 cut. This was kept amongst everything. This Franz Kafka, David Lynchian nightmare of an image ripped straight from a dutch-angled David Firth demented cartoon signifies that the production design and intention behind the film could have been so much more. Imagine if we got an entire film of things like this? I mean even the ramifications are intense. Is it a metaphor for Stu's abortion (Monkeybone) killing him whilst the corporate machine (tumour doctor) sucks him dry? Does the small and feeble way Stu thinks of himself reflect his own believed self-worth? Who knows? After the sequence is finished it's never touched on or mentioned again...
It's frustrating to see such creativity dwindled to these small moments. The idea of a genuinely-unsettling stop-motion and live-action hybrid makes me froth at the mouth personally, and every now and then we're reminded of what we could have been given. The fact that Down Town exists in a flowering metallic-palm as Stu arrives via helter-skelter, Death's army of souls trapped under bloodied patterned sheets, Stephen bloody King's soul being trapped in the afterlife whilst Cujo lives as him on Earth, a clear adoration (and possible delayed genesis?) of the furry phenomenon on screen???
What about a melting Brendan Fraser as he morphs into a skinsuit and is worn by an abusive sister throughout one of Julie's nightmares?
I grew up with Monkeybone, and I wasn't made aware of the fact that it...wasn't very good until I tried to talk to people about it. However whilst time has forgotten it, us Fraser-fans and lovers of stop-motion have always held true that somewhere inside it's troubled production and mass of groan-worthy jokes, exists an original and blisteringly-exciting piece of work. Remove the early-noughties farcical sensibilities and the lack of commitment, and it could be something that I think people would be really pleased to revisit in the future.
Hey, maybe even give Fraser a call too? Seeing my best friend again always continues to put a smile on my face.
Monkeybone is available on blu-ray and DVD.
The concept art is all taken from the home release and is the property of 20th Century Fox.
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