There are hints in the sunny Monkeybone of its darker source material: the graphic novel written by Kaja Blackley and illustrated by Vanessa Chong ominously titled Dark Town. Even though it’s widely known that adults read graphic novels (and also make up a big chunk of comic book buyers), contemporary Hollywood simply won’t acknowledge that fact, and continually defangs troubling tales into kid-friendly PG fare.
Monkeybone, adapted by Sam Hamm (Batman) and directed by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas), still has the sticky fingerprints of a dark psyche on it, even though these Tim Burton collaborators have managed to create a perky film about night terrors.
The film opens as cartoonist Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser) sits among an audience of adult tastemakers watching the pilot of an animated series based on his comic, Monkeybone. The show is smart, funny and demented, revealing how the salacious simian was literally born of a shy boy’s carnal fantasies.
Monkeybone continues to be promising when a freak accident puts Stu in a coma, and his mind descends into a netherworld fueled by nightmares, a freak-show purgatory where he must literally cheat death to get an exit pass. Here, Stu is confronted with his greatest tormentor: Monkeybone himself (voiced by John Turturro), truly the sidekick from hell. This locale should rightly be horrifying, yet it’s only slightly disturbing and oddly festive, with grim situations continually lightened with cheery patter.
Its promise thus wasted (the surreal visuals are fantastic, but have no context), the film soon slides downhill when Monkeybone possesses Stu’s body and takes over his burgeoning career, opting for quick mega-bucks via a merchandising juggernaut. All this unnerves Stu’s girlfriend, Julie McElroy (Bridget Fonda), a sleep researcher whose distillation of a nightmare-inducing formula is one reason the mischievous monkey goes above ground. It seems nightmare king Hypnos (Giancarlo Esposito) wants fresh imagery from an increasingly well-adjusted world (now there’s a fantasy).
Monkeybone is chock-full of interesting subtexts, all of which are briefly displayed and quickly abandoned. The film gets increasingly silly and shrill, until it finally deflates like the giant-sized balloon of Monkeybone used in a ludicrous final chase scene involving a decomposing zombie gymnast. Instead of a larger-than-life manifestation of a twisted imagination, we’re left with an empty rubber shell that only hints at what once brought it so impressively to life.
E-mail Serena Donadoni at email@example.com.