My World of Flops Nightmare at the Box Office Case File #120/My Year of Flops #17 Monkeybone (2001)
It’s hard to overstate the impact and legacy of Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. For over a quarter century it has single-handedly kept Hot Tropic in business and provided an aesthetic for generation upon generation of baby Goths. It has introduced spooky kids like my son Declan to the dark side in the best possible way.
Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas is a beloved, ubiquitous pop culture phenomenon that has yielded hundreds of millions in merchandising revenue through the decades. It is a beloved cornerstone of Tim Burton Inc. It’s so beloved that I’m shocked Tim Burton is not currently in the process of trying to destroy it with some manner of live-action remake.
People naturally assume that the famous motion picture director Tim Burton directed Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas because his name is in the title. That is some serious and some seriously successful branding. You put your name on something, as I do with this website and my signature line of bum fight videocassettes. Nathan Rabin’s Extra Violent Bum Fights, you want people to associate you with it.
Yet as Trivial Pursuit champions can perhaps tell you, Tim Burton, while obviously very involved with Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas is not the actual director of Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. That distinction confusingly yet impressively belongs to stop-motion animator Henry Selick, who did all the work while Burton got all the credit, and continues to get all the credit.
Selick knows the curious pain of folks like Empire Strikes Back director Irving Kershner and Return of the Jedi helmer Richard Marquand, both of whom directed Star Wars sequels that are nonetheless associated with the nerd with the beard who thought up all that silly space nonsense in the first place than their credited directors.
Though it was a more modest success at the time of its release than its cult and current ubiquity and influence would lead you to believe, Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas became a huge success, essential Americana, an integral part of the fabric of American pop culture. The same could not be said of 2001’s Monkeybone, an enormously promising comedy-fantasy mind-fuck that bombed with critics and audiences alike en route to becoming one of the biggest box-office flops of all time, grossing a pathetic 7, 622,365 dollars on a 75 million dollar budget.
The movie was a famous boondoggle, abandoned by a studio that had no idea what to do with it, or how to market a movie that takes place partially in the world of Death and Nightmares and features a protagonist who spends part of the film in a coma before his body is inhabited by a literal horny cartoon monkey who has sex with the comatose’s man emotionally shattered girlfriend repeatedly, running through the entire Kama Sutra more than once in a sweaty, horny frenzy of disturbing inter-species lust.
In hindsight, it’s not terribly surprising that Monkeybone wasn’t a big hit.
Monkeybone opens with edgy cartoonist Stuart "Stu" Miley (Brendan Fraser) on the verge of breakthrough professional success with his comic strip Show Me the Monkey, which has spawned an animated TV spinoff on Comedy Central and a potential merchandising bonanza along with it.
Then Stu has in an accident that leaves him in a coma. The distraught young creator, who has long been plagued by awful nightmares, finds himself hovering in a carnivalesque no man’s land called Down Town, where fantastical creatures live in a curious limbo between life and death, dreams and nightmares, our world and the next.
In Down Town, Stu is tormented by Monkeybone, the star of Show Me the Monkey and an unnerving ghoul who wastes no time establishing his soul-consuming lust for Dr. Julie McElroy (Bridget Fonda), Stu’s devastated girlfriend, who is understandably terrified her boyfriend, who was on the verge of proposing to her, will soon be dead.
It’s telling that the one moment of genuine sentimentality between Stu and Monkeybone, when they are functioning as a team, is immediately followed by icy betrayal once Monkeybone takes over Stu’s no longer comatose body and uses it to try to have sex with Dr. Julie, eagerly accept all the gross, sell-out deals Stu has too much integrity to take and generally behave a sub-human garbage monster who is sexually attracted to human women but monkeys as well.
In his bid to thwart Monkeybone’s evil plans, Stu convinces an indulgent Death (Whoopi Goldberg) to let him take over the death of a recently dead Olympics gymnast played by Chris Kattan so that he can make one big last appeal to his girlfriend.
The no longer dead man may have a broken neck but that doesn’t keep a resurgent Stu from racing to his girlfriend’s side, literally, to warn her of Monkeybone’s deception. Stu is pursued at every step by a scene-stealing Bob Odenkirk at his enraged, high-volume best. Odenkirk is hilarious as a surgeon performing a very lucrative operation on a recently deceased body who is horrified to see his meal ticket literally get up and run away before he can extract his sweet, sweet, impossibly valuable organs.
Odenkirk’s character doesn’t even have a name, just the title of “Head Surgeon” but that does not keep him from winning big laughs by chasing after his annoyingly kinetic patient and yelling things like, “Damn you dead man!” In this exquisitely apoplectic cadence of his.
Monkeybone may be a mess but it’s full of great lines delivered by perfectly cast actors, like when Odenkirk, deeply irritated that a dead patient has inexplicably morphed into not only a live one, but an extremely lively individual, says of the runaway organs inside the man fleeing him, "They’re in PERFECT working order. They’re working even better than we expected!”
Monkeybone, as voiced by John Turturro and realized alternately by supremely talented stop-motion animators and Brendan Fraser, is a repellent piece of shit. He’s not funny. He’s not cute. He’s not Roger Rabbit. He’s not your fantasy pal. He’s a fucking sex criminal, a gross, hyper-sexual, monkey and human female flesh-craving degenerate who presents himself to Stu as a comic sidekick and rampaging id, but he’s really a villain.
Monkeybone opens with an animated sequence chronicling how a young man with a very vivid imagination becomes sexually aroused by the hypnotic movement of the underarm flab of an elderly teacher and how his inconvenient yet insistent erection gave birth to a malevolent creature of pure sexual menace known as Monkeybone.
This establishes a tone of disturbing, pervasive over-sexualization the film seldom deviates from. Rose McGowan, for example, has a strange, sad supporting role as Kitty, a sad-eyed, lovestruck waitress in a nightmare realm notable for being disconcertingly sexy and disconcertingly cat-like and disconcertingly sexy in her cat-like essence. She’s all overflowing cleavage and sadness and furry, alluring blurring of animal and human, fictional creature and achingly real sexpot.
While Stu tries to overcome death itself in his mad passion to become reunited with the love of his life, Monkeybone is pretty much just a sentient erection with the atrocious, needling, exhausting personality of Tony Clifton or Jeffrey Ross. A real piece of shit, in other words. Let me assure you, dear reader, that Monkeybone fucks. Oh yes he does. It does not matter that he’s a monkey and a cartoon and a fictional sex criminal: when he’s inside his creator’s body he and the woman he has been lusting after all film long fuck. True, the good Doctor seems to suspect that something is awry, since her boyfriend is behaving like his famous creation and not his relatively milquetoast self, but that does not seem to prevent fucking from happening.
Monkeybone opens with all the promise in the world. If Burton walked away with most of the credit for Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, Selick enacts creative revenge here by creating a movie influenced by Beetlejuice the same way Oasis might have been influenced by the popular 1960s rock and roll band The Beatles.
Monkeybone doesn’t just recall Burton’s supernatural smash throughout; it seemingly inhabits the same world. For the most part that is a very, very good thing. The nightmare fantasy worlds of Monkeybone are realized for the most part through make-up and practical effects rather than CGI.
There’s something wonderfully, exquisitely handmade about the world-building of Monkeybone, an obsessiveness and meticulousness befitting someone coming from a labor-intensive background like stop-motion animation.
Then at a certain point this bleak, death-haunted, nightmare-infused romp through the darkest places of our consciousness becomes a crude sex comedy about a literal fuck monkey performed multiple lewd dances to classic funk and rock tracks like Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” and The Commodore’s “Brick House” in an attempt to convince a sexy human woman to either have sex with him, marry him, or both.
It’s as if the first half of the movie was written by Stu, a talented, ambitious creator of fictional worlds and dreamer of dark dreams and the second was lazily cobbled together by Monkeybone, a one-note monster of id and ego who just wants to fuck, and have money, and make glib, cheap jokes. It is a film divided against itself yet both sides work surprisingly well despite the huge tonal conflict at the film’s core.
Monkeybone isn’t just dark: it’s fucking brutal in its misanthropy. Megan Mullally, for example, is bleakly funny as Kimmy, Stu’s sister, who is in a terrible hurry to end her comatose brother’s life. She doesn’t just want to pull the plug, just as soon as she finds out where it is: she wants to yank it out of the wall with a cartoon “Yoink!!!”
Monkeybone was written and directed by golden age Tim Burton collaborators: Batman screenwriter Sam Hamm and Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick. So it’s unsurprising that it feels like Burton before he started to suck, before he devolved into self-parody, before he became a hack imitation of himself.
Monkeybone is dark and dirty and morbid and all over the place but also genuinely funny. Like our previous entry in Brendan Fraser month, Looney Tunes: Back in Action this is goddamned mess that reflects its tortured production history. But I’ve learned to embrace the movie for its flaws rather despite them. I’ve come to embrace the nightmarishness, embrace the grotesquerie, embrace the icky, inappropriate, overwhelming sexuality.
Monkeybone is a profoundly fucked up motion picture. It’s remarkable that something this strange and off-putting got made in the first place and I am grateful that this bizarre little orphan exists.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success
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