Monkeybone has all the ingredients necessary for a fascinating, stimulating, and invigorating psychological fantasy film. It’s based on a cult comic series (which was unfortunately never completed). It’s directed by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, Coraline), one of the most assured visual artists working in this country. It explores a kind of afterlife rarely seen in mainstream cinema. It’s at its core a very dark, disturbing film about the battle between the ego and the id, the dangers of succumbing to that flatulent, breast-loving little claymation monkey within all of us.
So why was it a huge, disappointment, big-budget failure ten years ago? If we’re to believe the people who worked on it, blame studio intervention. Pretty simple way to fuck up something potentially great, if you ask me. The script by Sam Hamm (Batman, unused drafts of Watchmen and Planet of the Apes), done in cahoots with Selick, called for major sights and sequences that would require a hefty budget. In comes producer Chris Columbus + 20th Century Fox, who together systematically take out the biggest, most imaginative sequences, alter the psychology, mess with the story beats, and try to shift its tone more toward bawdy, juvenile humor based on reaching the numbers in a very specific (and fickle) viewing demographic.
Of course, this is the story the filmmakers claim in words both spoken and unspoken during the DVD’s commentary track (yes, I watched the film twice yesterday), backed up by script reviews, set stories and test-screening reports (one of you readers, I believe, may have been at one of those) I followed feverishly back around the turn of the millennium. Who knows what the studio was saying to everybody involved in the film? Studios rarely talk, though, and you shouldn’t be surprised that I’m more inclined to believe creative people over their business partners. That, and we kind of having proof.
When the much-delayed film finally limped into theatres, it was a crushing disappointment for this young 18-year-old. I may not have entirely understood it then, but ten years later, it’s easier to recognize that I was feeling the shame of having so enthusiastically backed such a failure. It’s no fun to realize you may have been wasting your time, even if it was just feelings of excitement and anticipation.
(To put it a better way, the only reason I own this movie is because my roommate at the time was going to a get-together where Chris Kattan would be, and asked if she could pick up a DVD and get his autograph. I suggested she grab Corky Romano, which I thought was ironic enough to garner a laugh out of Kattan, but she could only find Monkeybone. And so, I have an autographed copy of this movie where Kattan is on the cover, although he’s only in it for ten minutes near the climax.)
The film is a mess, but removed from my own self-inflicted hype (there’s that word again; “hype”), it’s at least an interesting mess. What hurt my feelings is now easier to track, because even if I still haven’t figured out how to get people to…you know…give me money to make art, I definitely know what a studio-meddled screenplay and an studio-sanctioned editing chop job looks like. I can better appreciate what the film was at least trying to get at, even if it has been watered down. I’m going to seem like a broken record (which is why I hope more people decide to contribute to this project, and more frequently), but even if this movie fails, at least it tried to be different, and what it gets right, it gets really right. But this is a classic example of the right (most of the captivating, eye-popping first half that takes place mostly in the underworld) being dragged down by so much obnoxious, screaming wrong (a near-pointless and unfocused second half that takes place mostly in the real world in a plot about “nightmare juice” that never comes together).
I’m elated to find that the movie isn’t bad after all. And because the movie isn’t bad, and once again, this project has shown that, ten years removed from a feeling of massive personal disappointment, a movie can stand better on its own. This isn’t some breakthrough insight by any means, but it helps this 10ya project stay fresh. I can even rightfully say I enjoyed this movie for the first time ever, as the underworld segments still seem both fresh and deliciously out-of-control. And the subtext fits into this weird no-man’s-land of “who the hell is this movie made for,” a no-man’s-land I quite enjoy. But when Monkeybone takes over the body of the living Stu Miley, it’s on the same level of bad-cartoonesque-live-action as Meet The Deedles. (No, not the Feebles, the Deedles, with Paul Walker and Dennis Hopper.)
This film hurt Selick’s career, and I doubt he’ll ever make another live-action film again. It took eight years for him to get back on track after this debacle, and while, yes, stop-motion films take a great deal of time under any circumstances, this had to have extended his absence from filmmaking. Once Selick’s grand vision and Hamm’s script had to be compromised, he should have left the project. (I see that Harry Knowles, in something I’ve quoted below, echoes this sentiment, but from the commentary, it sounds like Knowles should have put more blame on Columbus.) Because you can see the greatness within, and while I cannot prove that their final product, free from any constraints, would have been incredible, I like to believe that it had a very good chance of it. And now I’m glad that I own a copy of this on DVD.
Oh, the lessons we learn.
Free-Floating Thoughts (/Observations/What Selick says on the commentary track)
-The original plan was to have the live action sequences be live action, and DownTown (the underworld, Land of Nightmares) to be entirely puppets made via stop-motion. Then it all got fucked.
Stu: “Am I dead?”
Tram: “Next stop: Land Of Death.”
-Much of what Selick mentions sounds amazing, or at least bold, creepy and disturbing. If you ever get a chance, listen to him describing the Morpheum, a DownTown theatre we only see from the outside, and what was to have gone on inside its walls.
-This finished filming October 27, 1999. It came out 16 months later. Ouch.
-We’re 15 minutes into the movie, and Selick has mentioned having to cut scenes about seven times. You can hear the pain in his voice, but also relief that the entire process is finally over.
-At least it’s moving at a steady click, but at the expense of proper story flow.
-Giancarlo Esposito as Hypnos, with his silly goat legs, amuses me to no end, simply because I’m a big fan of his, and I have no idea what he’s doing here.
-Thomas Haden Church is completely unrecognizable as Death’s assistant.
-Dear god…while looking through test screening reviews online, I stumbled upon some of my own talkback comments from over 10 years ago, and they’re depressingly naïve. This is yet another sign that the internet is inherently evil, as things like this never disappear and remind you that you were a stupid teenager.
-Going off of finding my old internet comments in re: this movie, I’m surprised at how into the movie I during its production process, because I had very few memories of that obsession now until I went through all the links again. Was I seriously that let down by the final product that I pushed so much positivity and energy out of my mind, as if it never happened?
-Wow. All the cool shit is basically over only 40 minutes into the movie. There’s another 45 minutes left.
-Man, Chris Kattan, as a reanimated dead Olympic gymnast, does his absolute damnedest to save this movie. And the Monkeybone hot-air balloon battle, complete with vital organs being flung through the sky, still makes me laugh.
-Here’s a link to the seventh draft of the script, which from a bit of perusal seems to be what they ended up shooting. Wish I could find a first or second draft.
-Oh right. Harry Knowles is actually in this, huh?…
Minor Critical Review Round-Up
…And here’s an excerpt of his vicious review of the final product.
“Step in Fox Animation and Fox with their cowardly non-committal chickenshit film production post-TITANIC limp-dick policy of non-filmmaker support.
Budget draft after budget draft…. Make it cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. Rubber suits, as little animation as possible… beef up the physical comedy… add more fart jokes and base humor. Rip out the amazing paperdoll world of Death. Gone the human shrinking flattening paperdoll converter device. Let’s take as much of the fantastic as possible out of MONKEYBONE.
Monkeybone was from the beginning an expensive project… from the beginning it was an odd experimental film. But by taking away so much of the tools and paints and money to make the film… all they are left with is a limp film aimed directly at the urinal.
So again, how responsible are Chris Columbus, Henry Selick and Sam Hamm… the three primary producers and creative head honchos of this disaster?
As soon as the cuts began, they should have left. Soon as they realized that the story could not be told in the only way it could be told… they should have left. By cutting all that they did, they had to realize how unbalanced the film had become… how disjointed it would end up.”
-And here’s some Onion A.V. Club goodness from Nathan Rabin
“Less a comedy than a mass of Freudian anxiety, surreal imagery, and elaborate production design looking for a reason to exist…A comedy with a profound identity crisis, Monkeybone can’t decide whether it’s a family-friendly adventure or a harrowing journey into the dark night of the soul, and, as a result, it fails as both…Monkeybone looks and feels—as does the similarly misguided How The Grinch Stole Christmas—like the worst Tim Burton movie Burton never made.”
-Finally, here’s A.O. Scott with the New York Times
“It’s a welcome antidote to the epidemic of witless, frenetic, secondhand low comedies that gnaw at our brains like antibody-resistant spirochetes..Sure, Monkeybone is a bit of a mess. But the unconscious is by definition a disorderly place, which few movies explore with such mischievous insight. Imagine if Luis Buñuel had returned from the grave and hooked up with the Farrelly brothers, with access to $50 million worth of foam rubber and modeling clay. That’s what dreams are made of.”