Ape Escape

Monkeybone, like a dream, is best when half-remembered

It's almost impossible to know what to make of Monkeybone after one viewing; there's so much going on in this dreamland of stop-motion and computer-generated animation and celebrity cameos that you have trouble keeping up with it. Indeed, like a half-remembered dream, the movie's often so overwhelming that even its dull, dead moments (of which there are many, unfortunately) leave you wondering what you're missing and what you've just forgotten. Monkeybone unfolds not only in the center of the screen but also in the corners, like the obscure, 6-year-old comic book from which it takes its central thesis, which is that figments of our imaginations are taking over our bodies, one nightmare at a time. In this case, that figment is a cartoon monkey named Monkeybone -- who, as it turns out, is a real dick, figuratively and literally.

Monkeybone is, in every sense, the alter ego of his creator, Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser), an artist on the verge of fame and fortune. Where Monkeybone (voiced by a helium-pitched John Turturro) is a smart-ass, sexed-up, fez-wearing little bastard, Stu is sweet but a bit bland and repressed, a nice guy who abhors the notion of getting rich off his creation. Against the wishes of his greasy agent, Herb (Kids in the Hall's Dave Foley), and his well-intentioned girlfriend, Julie (Bridget Fonda), Stu deflects the advances of fast-food joints and toy manufacturers who want to market Monkeybone burgers and dolls. He won't sell out Monkeybone because that would be like selling off a piece of his own soul. Before Stu met Julie, a doctor in a sleep-research lab, he was tortured by horrific, David Lynchian nightmares; when Julie suggested he simply begin drawing with his other hand, out popped the cute, if a tad horny, Monkeybone -- Curious George with a libido. (One great, hard-to-spot joke appears early on: Stu is being pitched all these ridiculous products as he stands against a wall decorated with animation cels from Futurama, The Simpsons and King of the Hill -- all cartoons for 20th Century Fox, the studio responsible for Monkeybone.)

But it's a giant, inflatable Monkeybone that lands Stu in a coma, after a car accident on the Fox lot; he's undone by his own creation after all. As his body lies there, limp and lifeless, Stu sinks into the gurney and slides into a place known as Downtown, a sort of pop-culture purgatory populated by unconscious humans and their thoughts -- or, more accurately, their psychological baggage, which is handed to them on their arrival. (Stu's luggage contains a dream book he made when he was a child, filled with drawings of a cyclops and other monstrous images, and old Conan the Barbarian comic books.) Downtown is overrun with distorted variations on familiar faces: Joe Camel asks Stu for a smoke; the blue elephant from the Star Wars cantina plays piano in the bar; Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe and Attila the Hun share a prison cell; and the local theater, the Morpheus, shows uncut nightmares nonstop. But it's also the playground for the gods: Death (Whoopi Goldberg, sporting an eye patch beneath her dreads) and Hypnos (Giancarlo Esposito, human from the waist up and cloven-hoofed from the waist down) toy with the citizens of Downtown, feeding off their nightmares. "We see a lot of dreams down here," Hypno tells Stu, "but yours are like caviar."

Brendan Fraser in the visually stunning Monkeybone
Brendan Fraser in the visually stunning Monkeybone


Opens Feb. 23 at multiple locations.

Back in the real world, Stu's sister (Megan Mullally, essentially reprising her role as Karen on Will & Grace) has decided to pull the plug; she and Stu long ago made a pact that one wouldn't ever let the other become a vegetable. The only way Stu can escape the dream world is by procuring a golden "exit" pass (reminiscent of Charlie's golden coupon into Willy Wonka's candy factory), which allows one to float skyward and into the mouth of a glowing Abe Lincoln ("the great emancipator," we're reminded). But it's Monkeybone who finally escapes into Stu's comatose body; "I don't want to be a figment anymore," he explains. Monkeybone's liberation is contingent on his ability to provide Hypnos with more nightmares off which he can feed; it's up to Stu to return to earth -- this time, in the body of a corpse (Saturday Night Live's Chris Kattan) -- to save its citizens from a life of nightmares.

The film is loosely based on the comic book Dark Town, written by Kaja Blackley and illustrated by Vanessa Chong -- loosely, because the comic is bleak and morose where the movie is so light it floats. Blackley envisioned Dark Town (the film's Downtown) as a "surreal and volatile world that lies beyond the realms of dreams and nightmares"; the Lords of Dark Town enter the bodies of the comatose, plotting an "invasion of the surreal." But their plans go awry when they swipe a man, Jacques de Bergerac, with dreams so powerful they threaten to destroy the very fabric of Dark Town -- if he can escape. (Frustratingly, Blackley completed only one book out of 12 proposed Dark Town issues before his publishing company, the Toronto-based Mad Monkey Press, folded.) Sam Hamm, who penned the original Batman screenplay before it was softened by a handful of script doctors, took the essentials of the tale and brightened them up; a sad psychological thriller has become a goofy comedy, the kind that takes great pleasure in uttering myriad variations of Stu's line that he'll "be right back, after I choke my monkey."

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