Planet of the inner ape
Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser) is a successful cartoonist who just sold his strip “Monkeybone” to the Comedy Channel as an animated series. He’s fielding proposals for all kinds of merchandising, and is about to propose to the doctor who cured his insomnia, Julie McElroy (Bridget Fonda as the Beautiful Young Woman). His agent (Dave Foley) wants him to cash in and sell out, but Stu just wants to be left alone to enjoy the simple life. His plans run swiftly awry when he has an auto accident, which puts him in a coma.
It also puts him on a roller coaster ride headed for “Down Town”, subconscious land of his innermost dreams and nightmares – a place filled with strange creatures, much like the dark side of H.R. Pufnstuf’s Living Island, a Lidsville that’s flipped its lid. There he meets his creation Monkeybone (voiced by John Turturro) – a horny, obnoxious cartoon simian – in the flesh.
Meanwhile, Stu’s sister Kimmy (Megan Mullally) shows up at the hospital to put in her claim that she and her brother had a “life support pact”. She’s ready to pull the plug on Stu right away, but agrees to wait the three month average before recovery will be unlikely.
Stu learns from the satyr Hypnos, Lord of Nightmares (Giancarlo Esposito), that he can get an “Exit Pass” back to the real world by stealing one from the palace of Death (Whoopi Goldberg). He and Monkeybone manage to get in disguised as one of Death’s corps of Reapers, and snatch a Pass off her desk.
Most features would be content to chronicle Stu’s fight to wake up before his plug is pulled, but screenwriter Sam Hamm (in his first produced script since Batman) gives the tale a firm twist for the second half. Monkeybone double-crosses Stu, stealing the Exit Pass and waking up in the cartoonist’s body, ready to wreak havoc. It’s all a plot cooked up by Hypnos, who wants an agent in the real world to deliver some nightmares. How? By stealing a special drug from Julie’s sleep lab, and sabotaging a shipload of Monkeybone toys with the stuff.
Monkeybone is crammed with creativity, each frame filled to the corners with ingenious details that demand repeat viewing. It’s an entertaining film that nevertheless feels like a compromise, only hinting at a much better, edgier film hidden behind its PG-13 rating. As the deleted material in the DVD extras – and director Henry Selick (Nightmare Before Christmas) in his commentrak – reveal, it would have been a stronger movie left uncut, but Fox also had an expensive film that they had to sell to kids. A tough proposition considering the title character is a symbolic manifestation of an erection who enjoys sticking his thumb in his anus. Based on a graphic novel by Kaja Blackly, Down Town was originally Dark Town. Fox and producer Chris Columbus made further cuts, either for time or to remove “fake looking” special effects, removing a lot of badly needed character development, and leaving a lot of pacing and continuity problems. Is it art sabotaged for commerce, or simply smart marketing that failed? In either case, it’s the viewer that has to pay the price.
The finished film has a sour over-produced taste for adults, with enough twisted adult material to give kids a lot of nightmares. While Monkeybone is indulging in wickedness, Stu is stuck in a dungeon with other authors in the same boat, including Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe (Edgar Allan Poe IV). He escapes with the help of feline cocktail waitress Kitty (Rose McGowan), who tears out the throat of a rat guard with her fangs. Stu makes a deal with Death, who allows him a short time in the real world to tell Julie he loves her (Awww). He awakes in the best available body – the corpse of a gymnast who has had an accident (Chris Kattan, who steals the show) – and rushes off to save everyone from the imposter, occasionally dropping an organ from his chest cavity.
Fox gives the DVD the deluxe treatment, with an ultrasharp transfer and plenty of demo-ready audio options. Besides the features already mentioned, there’s also raw animation footage, with optional commentary by Selick, for just about every frame of Monkeybone in the film. There’s also a generous collection of concept art, the theatrical trailer, and three TV spots.