Monkeybone (2001)

There are two immediately obvious reasons why the special effects horror comedy Monkeybone is worth revisiting in 2022: its director and its star.  Henry Selick’s upcoming Wendell and Wild is his first feature film since 2009’s cult favorite Coraline, and it appears to be perfectly in rhythm with the stop-motion nightmares for kids that have defined his career.  Not only is Monkeybone Selick’s only live-action film to date, but it also happens to feature another beloved 90s figure who’s making a comeback this year: Brendan Fraser, who’s soon to launch a Best Actor awards campaign for Aronofsky’s The Whale. Fraser is in his wacky, live-action Looney Tunes mode in Monkeybone, as opposed to the dramatic vulnerability mode he brings to films like Gods & Monsters and, presumably, The Whale.  Trapped in a literal nightmare-world induced by a coma, Fraser’s comic book artist protagonist goes to war with his own cartoonish creations in a physical version of the Hot Topic mall-goth fantasyscapes Selick made his name on in A Nightmare Before Christmas.  It’s like a dispatch from an alternate universe where Tim Burton directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, one made even more fascinating by the fact that it flopped hard on its initial release – investing $75mil on a $7mil payoff.

To my shame, I don’t want to spend much time praising what Selick nor Fraser achieve in Monkeybone.  No, I want to praise Chris Kattan.  I outright groaned when Kattan’s name showed up in the opening credits, expecting the SNL veteran to be voicing the titular, annoying cartoon monkey sidekick character as an extension of his Mr. Peepers sketches.  It turns out that Kattan is totally innocent on that front; Monkeybone is voiced by John Turturro, the scamp. He’s also supposed to grate on the audience’s nerves, as evidenced by Fraser’s constant efforts to get him to shut up & go away every time he opens his obnoxious little mouth.  For his part, Kattan doesn’t show up until about an hour into the runtime, playing the corpse of a gymnast who died in a horrific accident.  Through convoluted cosmic circumstances that involve a deal with Death herself (played by Whoopi Goldberg, naturally), Fraser’s comatose cartoonist takes over the gymnast’s body mid-organ donation and flees the hospital into an unsuspecting world.  Kattan’s physical acting as an animated corpse with a broken neck and organs plopping out of its open body cavity had me absolutely howling with laughter.  It was the quickest I’ve ever turned around on a famous actor’s presence in a film, encountering Kattan’s name with dread, then finding his performance so deliriously funny that I almost threw up from the physical exertion. I suppose it’s also worth pointing out that another 2022-relevant actor played a major part of that movie-stealing gag: Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk as the perplexed surgeon who trails behind the undead gymnast, continuing to harvest his organs as they fall to the ground behind him.  It’s sublimely silly.

As screechingly funny as Monkeybone gets during Kattan’s third-act zombie run and as wildly imaginative as Selick’s coma-induced Land of Nightmares set designs can be, its legacy mostly resonates with a what-could’ve-been melancholy.  Selick might have become a household name if this film didn’t flop so spectacularly. Or at least we wouldn’t get his work confused with Tim Burton’s quite so often.  Grimmer yet, Fraser, Kattan, and Rose McGowan (playing a humanoid-cat cocktail waitress, of course) have all gone public with stories of behind-the-scenes sexual abuse from major Hollywood players in the #MeToo era, haunting the film with questions of where their careers might have gone in a better world.  In the aftermath of those revelations, Fraser’s getting his late-career comeback, McGowan’s become a self-appointed spokesperson for the movement, and Kattan has continued to live in relative, semi-retired anonymity (give or take an affectionate shoutout in this summer’s Nope).  I don’t know that Kattan deserves the same red-carpet career revival as his co-stars, or if the actor would even be interested in a proper Kattanissance if it were an option.  I do know this, though: his performance is absolutely the highlight of Monkeybone, somehow outshining all of the cheeky monkeys, cyclops babies, Guernica bulls, and Nazi Mickey Mouse prison guards that Selick packs into the frame.  It would have been an interesting relic even without Kattan, creating an amusement park dark ride version of the kinds of grotesque cartoons that only aired on late-night Comedy Central in the 1990s.  Still, Kattan’s late-in-the-game intrusion is what pushes it over the line from interesting to essential.

-Brandon Ledet

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