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by: Michael Dequina

With its wide latitude for visual invention, Monkeybone would appear an ideal fit for director Henry Selick, who created such memorable fantasy worlds in The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. From a purely technical standpoint, Selick doesn't disappoint, filling the screen with strange yet striking sights. Unfortunately, the script is only able to fill the "strange" requirement.

There's no denying that the story, adapted by Sam Hamm from Kaja Blackley's graphic novel Dark Town, is really just an excuse to bring some cutting-edge puppetry, stop-motion, and computer animation to the screen. The thin premise has cartoonist Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser) lapsing into a coma after getting into a freak car accident just as his fortunes appeared to take a very positive turn: his bawdy comic strip Monkeybone is set to become a TV cartoon series, and he is about to propose to his girlfriend Julie McElroy (Bridget Fonda). While his body remains lifeless in a hospital bed, Stu's very living spirit wanders in the strange land of Down Town, where he comes face to face with many exotic creatures--including a physical manifestation of his very own Monkeybone (voiced by John Turturro), a wild little simian with sinister intentions.

Down Town is stunningly brought to life by production designer Bill Boes, and the animation and puppetry Selick uses to bring the assorted creatures to life blend seamlessly with the live action. (Let it be known right now that despite the plentiful animation, this film has a serious naughty streak that makes it inappropriate for younger children.) Yet as freely as the filmmaker's imaginations are allowed to roam, their creations are tied down by the flat, sometimes incoherent script. This may not entirely be Hamm's fault; the choppy and rushed feeling of the opening stages bear the probable scars of studio tinkering. Even so, what shows up on screen fails to offer much of a basic explanation as to what Down Town really is, and who or what its weird inhabitants exactly are.

Not that we get much of a sense of who Monkeybone's flesh-and-blood characters are, either. But based on what is seen, there doesn't appear to be much to get to know. Stu is basically just a nice guy, having sublimated all his darker urges into his work. Julie is the dutiful, loyal girlfriend. Stu--or, rather, his body--gets an infusion of personality when the spirit of Monkeybone takes over, but this development enables Fraser to indulge in the off-putting slapsticky tics that made George of the Jungle and Dudley Do-Right such ordeals to sit through.

Despite its many problems, Monkeybone somehow manages to hit a stride in its final third with the arrival of Chris Kattan as a reanimated corpse; to say anything more would rob some of the enjoyment of his manic, lunatic performance. But soon after the film finally appears to get going, it's all over, making the obvious effort put in by Monkeybone's talented technicians a bundle of chaotic energy signifying nothing.

RATING: ** 1/2 (out of *****)


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