Monkeybone (2001)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Bridget Fonda, Chris Kattan
Extras: Commentary Track, Deleted Scenes, Animation Studies, Theatrical Trailer, TV Spots, Still Gallery

Have you ever wondered where nightmares come from? Or, have you ever given any thought to what is happening in the minds of those unfortunate people who are in comas? If these thoughts have crossed your mind, you’ll find some answers in the film "Monkeybone", newly available on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment – although, it must be said that the explanations given in this film are mighty weird. As "Monkeybone" will most likely end up being the biggest financial bomb of 2001, must people have been using the word "nightmare" to describe the film and "coma" to account for the mental state of the executive who greenlit this project. Whatever word you use to describe it, there’s no denying that "Monkeybone" is a unique cinematic and imaginative experience.

Brendan Fraser leads the cast of "Monkeybone" as Stu Miley (whose jacket reads "S. Miley". Get it?). Stu is a cartoonist who has achieved success with a comic-strip entitled "Monkeybone". The cartoon features a mischievous monkey, named Monkeybone, who is always getting the comic-strip version of Stu into trouble. (Basically, Monkeybone is Stu’s id.) As the film opens, Stu is embarking on a new business venture, as Monkeybone is being made into a television show for "The Comedy Channel". While Stu’s manager Herb (Dave Foley), is very excited about the financial prospect of the show, Stu just wants to propose to his girlfriend, Dr. Julie McElroy (Bridget Fonda). As Stu and Julie leave the party celebrating Stu’s success, they get in an auto accident, and Stu goes into a coma. This is where the movie gets weird.

As Stu enters his coma, he is transported to Down Town, a very strange city where coma victims wait to either wake up (and thus be returned to the land of the living), or die (and enter the land of the dead). For some reason (which is never really explained in the film), the most popular form of entertainment in Down Town is watching the nightmares of those living on Earth. Stu’s nightmare comes true when he finds that Monkeybone (voiced by John Turturro) is a living entity in Down Town, and a cackling wiseass to boot. So, Stu is in a coma and must live with his own creation, whose surge in popularity has only made Stu miserable. Through a series of events involving Hypnos, the god of nightmares (Giancarlo Esposito), Stu learns that his sister Kimmy (Megan Mullally) is going to have his life-support turned off. Stu must now work with Monkeybone to find a way to come out of his coma and get back to Julie. But, can Stu trust a monkey sidekick who only wants to be famous?

That plot synopsis may seem to describe a great deal of the movie, but in actuality, that’s only about the first 45-minutes, and things just keep getting weirder from there. Allow me to defend "Monkeybone" by saying that it’s not the stinker that some have made it out to be. It’s simply an unusual film, which got dumped into the marketplace. Now, let me play devil’s advocate and say that I can’t imagine why any studio executive would allow $70 million to be spent on such an odd premise and be surprised that the film is unmarketable. "The Nightmare Before Christmas" director Henry Selick and "Batman" scribe Sam Hamm, have crafted a film that is like "Beetlejuice" on steroids. The movie is so full of bizarre images and disturbing creatures that the story seems to take a backseat to the weirdness. While many of these visuals are fascinating (the movie is loosely based on a graphic novel and maintains that comic-book look), they are overwhelming as well. Add to this the fact that "Monkeybone" feels incredibly disjointed. The film jumps back and forth between Down Town and the real world, and there are many times when you get the feeling that something is missing. (And with the <$commentary,audio commentary> and deleted scenes featured on this DVD, we do learn that a lot was missing.)

So, based on that, "Monkeybone" is an unwatchable mess, right? No, "Monkeybone" turns out to be quite watchable and enjoyable for one reason and one reason only — Brendan Fraser. The man who isn’t afraid to fight the undead in the "Mummy" films proves himself to be the bravest actor in Hollywood with "Monkeybone". Fraser is equally believable as the morose Stu who just wants to be alone with Julie and the desperate Stu, who will do anything to leave Down Town, and… another character who I don’t want to spoil for those who haven’t seen the film. The scene with Bridget Fonda in the bedroom should be enough to prove to anyone that Brendan Fraser isn’t afraid to make a fool of himself onscreen. Fraser’s charm carries the film, and he seems to be the only person who gets the material, as Fonda and Foley, drift in and out of the movie. Those who believe that Hollywood is afraid to try something different should see "Monkeybone". It’s different… very different.

Despite "Monkeybone’s" box-office failure, Fox has given the film a warm welcome to DVD. The film is presented in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1. The picture is sharp and very clear, being relatively free of grain or noise. However, at the 1:18:00 mark, there is a series of exterior daylight scenes, involving blue-screen which show a substantial amount of grain. But, the fact that the black-and-white shots are most free of grain show that care was put into this transfer. "Monkeybone" offers an interesting mixture of the dark hues of Down Town and the colorful real world, both of which look very good on this transfer. From the orange of Monkeybone to the blue of Stu’s jacket in the finale, the colors are rich and true. There are no overt problems caused by artifacting or compression problems, and the 1.85:1 framing appears to be accurate.

This transfer continues to shine in the audio department as well. The viewer is given the choice of two main audio soundtracks, a <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 channel> track or a <$DTS,DTS> 5.1 track. Both sound equally good overall, with the DTS track offering a slightly broader soundfield and a bit more bass response. Both tracks give a nice dose of surround sound action, most noticeable in scenes such as Stu’s arrival in Down Town (Chapter 5) or the party (Chapter 19). Also of note on both tracks is the impressive dynamic range and the realistic speaker selection for certain sound effects. The dialogue is clear and audible and Anne Dudley’s Danny Elfman-like soundtrack sounds very good. Neither soundtrack offers any hiss and the volume is always stable.

A third soundtrack brings us the <$commentary,audio commentary>, featuring director Henry Selick. To be honest, I’d expected a commentary similar to the one from Joe Berlinger on "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" in which he blames the studio for ruining his movie. However, Selick remains very calm throughout his talk — at times too calm, as his monotone voice has a certain hypnotic effect. Selick is quick to point out which scenes the studio executives questioned him on and does specifically mention a part that executive producer Chris Columbus was uncomfortable with, but Selick never gives any indication that control of "Monkeybone" was taken away from him. Selick seems to take responsibility for the jarring way in which the film was put together. He does, however, make some strong statements about the tastes of the moviegoing public and this is where his true bitterness shines through. For those looking for a more traditional commentary, Selick does give specifics on the film’s special effects and what the actors were like. This is an amazingly angry, yet restrained commentary.

To help clarify some plot-points in "Monkeybone", eleven extended or deleted scenes are included on the DVD. Many of these help to tie up the loose ends in the film and one must wonder why they were excised from a movie that only ran 93-minutes (not the 100-minutes which is listed on the DVD box.) Ten of these scenes have optional commentary by Selick, but he doesn’t have much to say here. The "alternate ending" advertised on the DVD packaging is simply a longer ending, in which Hypnos gets his comeuppance. The DVD also includes a section entitled "Monkeybone Secrets Revealed". Here, we are treated to seven scenes, which show how the film’s stop-motion animation and CGI effects were combined. Essentially these are unfinished scenes in which we can see the puppets against a green-screen or the unfinished elements of a CGI effect. Three of these scenes have optional commentary by Selick.

The "Monkeybone" DVD must get kudos for having one of the most exhaustive production art still galleries ever. Literally hundreds of photos are included here and they are broken up into 29 sub-headings, as most every character and location is given a study in production drawings and experimental art. For more basic features, we have the film’s theatrical trailer, which is presented full-frame, as well as three TV spots, all full-frame as well.

It’s probably best to think of "Monkeybone" as an experiment gone wrong. While the film does have some funny moments, and Brendan Fraser’s performance must be seen to be believed, the main reason to watch the movie is simply to see how weird it gets. Fox has brought us a very good DVD with "Monkeybone" which offers a good transfer and impressive sound. I’m sure that some of you will come away from "Monkeybone" bewildered, but there are those who will find it charming… in a guy-in-a-coma meets talking-monkey kind of way.