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."
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."
That Monkeybone is 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, cyclops, 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 fairytales 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 much good working with people; the overlong live-action intro to James is the very reason "fast forward" was invented. The windup is blessedly brief this time around, 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 does resembles Burton's Beetlejuice fantasia). 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 Stu, or Monkeybone, is actually out of a coma.
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.