Ape Escape

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

That Monkeyboneis visually stunning comes as little surprise. Henry Selick, the film's director, gave warmth and charm to Tim Burton's surrealistic pillow of a movie, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and he found the ghoulish heart and twisted humor in Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach. His third feature is no less splendid to look at: It's a playground overrun by corpses, grim reapers, centaurs, Cyclopes, demons, gods, kitty-cat waitresses, rat-faced jailers, and the mortals who plunge into their purgatory during long stays in comas. Selick is a master at bringing fairy tales to life; in a world where most of us are hindered by the boundaries of our limited imaginations, Selick runs amok, restricted only by the budgets imposed on him by the movie studio. He is the ultimate interpreter of dreams, a man who makes a skeleton dance like Fred Astaire, a peach soar like Superman, and a monkey sing like Marilyn Monroe. If only those pesky flesh-and-blood humans didn't get in the way.

Selick's never been very good at working with people; the overlong live-action intro to Jamesis the very reason fast-forward was invented. The wind-up is blessedly brief this time, but we're never allowed to get too absorbed in Selick's dream world, which alternates between radiant colors and dreary, horrific black-and-whites. (At times it resembles Burton's Beetlejuicefantasia.) Too often we're thrust back into the real world, where Fonda arrives at the notion of rescuing Stu by injecting him with a nightmare serum that will either snap him back to reality or plunge him further into his delirium. Worse, when Monkeybone inhabits Stu's body, the movie sinks from the surreal to the mundane; this malleable cartoon character, able to shift shapes, doesn't seem terribly animated any longer. Rather than hump anything in sight with his newfound genitalia, he's content to pretend he's human; Fraser plays him so straight it's hard to tell if the character is actually out of a coma.

Which is the monkey, which the organ grinder? Brendan Fraser and pal in Monkeybone.
Which is the monkey, which the organ grinder? Brendan Fraser and pal in Monkeybone.

As a corpse given a reprieve just as he's being harvested for organs (by Mr. Show's Bob Odenkirk), Kattan is far livelier than the rest of the film. With a broken neck and sliced-open gut (out of which his innards keep spilling, one organ at a time), Kattan is as reckless as Fraser is stiff, and the climactic chase -- with Odenkirk running after Kattan, shouting such things as "Damn you, dead man!" -- captures a bit of the anarchic energy of Mr. Show. It figures that a movie about purgatory would come to life only when put in the hands of a dead man.

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