25 October 2001 | Spleen
Deserved to do better
Henry Selick's first feature, "The Nightmare Before Christmas", was a modern classic. His next, "James and the Giant Peach", had most of the things that made "Nightmare" great - heavily diluted. One thing that weakened Selick's second movie was his decision to begin and end with live action footage, when the glory of both "Nightmare" and "Peach" lay in skilful, sharp, gorgeous stop-motion animation.
In "Monkeybone" Selick has watered the original batch of Nightmare juice still more (note to Selick: it's time to stop mining this lode - if you make a fourth feature, get a new look), with at least half of the footage lacking the visual trademarks that were probably the reason for making the film in the first place. There WAS some stop-motion footage thrown in, probably it's for old time's sake.
Still, this is a better, more memorable movie than Selick's last one, and certainly not nearly as bad as the miserable box-office returns and scathing reviews would lead you to believe. Yes, the film has its flaws, but if you were to judge from its reception you'd think it didn't have ANY virtues - which simply isn't true. There's Brendan Fraser, for a start. How can you not like Stu Miley, or the way Fraser plays him? (If you want to see Fraser's charm wasted, see "Bedazzled".) At one point Stu is forced to temporarily occupy another body (Chris Kattan), and we instantly transfer our affections to the new actor without giving the matter a second thought - which is more remarkable than it sounds, and shows that Fraser really had been WORKING to get us to like Stu.
Then there's Downtown, which you must admit, looks good. It's more of a visual hodgepodge than Selick's previous two worlds (the first of which owes its look largely to Tim Burton), partly because it was realised through an ill-chosen mixture of costume, CGI, stop-motion and set design ... our eyes must constantly adjust, yet the overall look is strong enough to make it worth the effort.
As for the film's flaws, well, they've been greatly exaggerated. I suppose there were (as several American critics complained) some bodily-function-based jokes, but I can't recall that many - certainly not as many or as witless as in "Shrek", and besides, at least some of the jokes in "Monkeybone" are actually funny. That's because they're character-based, and not solely reliant on the alleged shock value of someone suddenly farting or burping.
All that's really wrong with "Monkeybone" is that it lacks the brilliance a premise this bizarre demands. Yeah, well, big deal. So unlike Selick's first feature it's not a masterpiece. It's still an entertaining, competently made film with a good, solid story, more than inventive enough to justify having been made.