I seem to remember an old 'Saturday Night Live' sketch called, in the most portentous voice possible, "WHEN GOOD HAMSTERS… GO BAD." Or maybe it wasn't hamsters at all, or even 'Saturday Night Live,' but the best description of "Monkeybone" is a portentous "WHEN GOOD IDEAS… GO BAD."
Director Henry Selick, who made "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach," works here from a script by Sam Hamm, who based it on the comic book "Dark Town," by Kaja Blackley. It's the story of pathologically shy comic-strip artist Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser) who runs from the hype surrounding his latest creation, Monkeybone, who looks like Curious George and sounds like Bart Simpson, who now is the star of his own animated TV series. Stu's girlfriend is the sleep doctor Julie McElroy (Bridget Fonda), who's been able to bring him out of his introversion by having him switch drawing hands (don't ask).
Just as Stu is about to ask Julie to marry him, they are in an accident that leaves Stu in a coma. In that coma he finds himself in the limbo of Downtown, a dream world of various nightmares, in which Monkeybone comes to life as a priapic stud, who eventually returns to life in the body of Stu (another don't ask). Downtown is presided over by Death (Whoopi Goldberg) and it has more alien creatures than the bar on Tatooine. Stu's job is to get back to earth and out of that darned coma before Monkeybone can do any more harm, and before his own sister can pull the plug on him. Such is life (and death) in the cartoon business.
So here we have a film full of inventive ideas, with a decent premise, and good comic actors waiting around for something to do. But the script is barely there, the structure of the film is so choppy as to suggest that Selick never trusted his own comic instincts, and the climax (the dreaded plug-pull) comes in the middle - yes, I know it's the nightmare, but it's presented as real. Smell seems to play an important role in the film, with monkey-fart jokes and the odor of a decaying body being unleashed at critical moments.
Selick's "James and the Giant Peach" was a lovely and underrated film that made gorgeous use of animation to underline its wit and wisdom, working from the very thin story by Roald Dahl. Here, though, a great deal of money and energy has gone into creating sets and creatures who have too little to do; and the real-life plot is laid out from beginning to end within the first ten minutes.
Fraser is an excellent physical comedian, with a wide-eyed manner and the ability to deliver lines with a charming innocence, but he is sadly abandoned here by a script that leaves him wandering in and out of scenes that have no pace or wit. Fonda is a perpetual straight-woman, and the voice of Monkeybone (John Turturro) is given only a screeching, one-note personality. Near the end, the film brings in Organ Donor Stu (Chris Kattan), who gives the film a momentary lift as a deus ex machina, but it then takes him away just when we hope for his own revival. Another good idea… gone bad.