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Funky business 

There are many ways to describe a film, any project really, that doesn't work out the way one hoped it would. You could be nice and say, "Close, but no cigar." Or you could just say what you really mean, such as, "It's an abject failure."

Monkeybone is an abject failure, a film devoid of any rhyme or reason, a title that probably won't last for a very long time on any of its actors' resumes -- or in theaters. It's something that probably sounded pretty good in discussions and looked kind of cool in its storyboard phase, but ultimately just wasn't able to be pulled off.

Based on another failure, a projected 12-part graphic comic book called Dark Town, of which only part one was ever published, the film's plot takes on the central theme of the comic -- the story of a soul being trapped in a weird netherworld, somewhere between life and death -- and turns it into an adventure-comedy-romance. Unfortunately, it's not very adventurous, the romance is left on the back burner and there's just nothing funny about it beyond a few good sight gags and one wild physical performance.

What on earth happened here? There's certainly some solid talent involved. Director Henry Selick made The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, two wonderful and often startling stop-motion animated features. And it stars rubber-faced and multi-talented Brendan Fraser (make sure to see Blast From the Past) and the fetching and usually quite convincing Bridget Fonda. But Selick misses his mark here.

When he goes for over-the-top humor, all he can muster is madcap mayhem, which wears out its welcome very quickly. And when he goes for the creepier, darker stuff, he ends up with grotesquerie. His light humor is without whimsy, his dark humor -- with the exception of one terrific and horrific fantasy segment involving a cat in doctor's clothing about to "fix" a dog -- is simply unpleasant.

Plotwise, there are some interesting things going on. Fraser plays Stu Miley (his first initial and last name subtly spell out "Smiley" on one of his shirts), a successful comic book writer whose creation, Monkeybone, is about to hit the big time. But he's not interested in monetary success. He only wants to marry his doctor girlfriend, Julie (Fonda). But before he can pop the question, he's in a car accident, and ends up in a coma. Within the coma, his spirit (or some such thing) travels to DownTown, a Nightmare Before Christmas-like place where other coma victims are waiting to find out if they'll return to life or go the other way.

An original idea for sure. And there's some good back and forth jumping between this weirdo place that's inhabited by all sorts of garish creatures and the real world where he lies in a hospital bed and where Julie maintains a vigil, pleading with him to wake up.

The film's downfall begins with the inclusion of the title character, who didn't exist in the original comic book. He's a cartoon monkey -- presented in old-fashioned stop-motion animation -- fast-talking, trouble-making, jumping all over the place. He's a much ruder and much less funny version of Roger Rabbit. He accompanies Stu to DownTown as well as a visit to Death, herself (Whoopi Goldberg) in Thantopolis, from which both he and Stu try to escape and make it back to life.

Only one of them does -- actually, both of them sort of do -- accompanied by an evil plot concocted by certain fantasy denizens, and things start to go awry in the real world. But even though there are all kinds of nifty visual effects -- ranging from creations that would have fit nicely in the Star Wars cantina, to a melding of black and white with color photography -- the film and the plot eventually take to plodding along. What's left is Fraser going wacky from time to time (is this how a monkey in a human's body would act, shamelessly making a fool of himself?), and watching poor Fonda scowl through her performance because all she's allowed to do is be upset by her boyfriend's strange new behavior.

The only beacon of light the film offers is in a bravura turn of physical comic acting from Chris Kattan, who enters the fray far too late to save anything, as a dead organ donor who miraculously comes back to life at an inopportune time. But his screen time is brief, and everything else around him seems to go on forever.

It's obvious that neither Selick nor screenwriter Sam Hamm had the chops for this kind of outing. It might have worked with Tim Burton, it probably would have with Terry Gilliam. But as it stands, it's just about perfectly awful.

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