For decades, critics and commentators have presumed to psychoanalyse movies – reading the symptoms to uncover the repressed, unconscious material churning around in plots and images. The appeal of this method is obvious: such armchair analysts can assume they are smarter than the films they watch.
Henry Selick's hilarious Monkeybone psychoanalyses itself effortlessly. It is a film about dreams, libido and creativity in the jolly, surreal tradition of musical comedies such as Lady in the Dark (1944) and especially The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T (1953).
Stu (Brendan Fraser) is a cartoonist whose creation, Monkeybone, is set for cross-media, franchise-frenzy stardom. Monkeybone is the artist's wicked alter ego, saying and doing everything buried in his conscious, daily life. He is also, like the villain in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (1988), a whirling dervish of pop culture – the film's non-stop collage of cheesy songs puts Moulin Rouge (2001) to shame.
When Stu suffers a near-fatal accident, his soul goes Downtown, the realm of Death (Whoopi Goldberg). Through various, wonderful plot convolutions, Monkeybone ends up taking over Stu's body. Liberated, he immediately makes for Stu's girlfriend, Julie (Bridget Fonda) – who also happens to be a handy expert in sleep disorders.
Monkeybone keeps spinning lively variations on its dreamworld premise. It is a film in which crowded images are topped with a cascade of verbal rap, always keeping the audience on its toes.
Wisely, Selick builds to a burlesque climax that rivals Buster Keaton in its acrobatic precision. It is also a surprisingly touching story, with Fraser and Fonda holding their own against a large army of special effects technicians.
This is Selick's first live-action feature after his outstanding animations, James and the Giant Peach (1996) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Like Tim Burton (with whom he has worked), Selick brings a deliciously Gothic sensibility to fairy tale narratives. He manages the rare trick of plumbing subversive depths while still walking the straight-and-narrow of therapeutic, feel-good storytelling.
Everything depends on Selick's artful sleight-of-hand – what he evades or quickly skims over. An extraordinary, tantalising sequence where Stu finds himself inside his very worst nightmare is over almost as soon as it begins.
Occasionally, a disquieting detail is hurriedly skipped – such as the question of whether Julie enjoys having sex with the athletic monkey-man in her bed. Some of the best gags are mere extras, whisked away before they become tired – like an accidental glimpse into the dream-life of a dog.
In many ways, Monkeybone follows the template laid down by Joe Dante's delirious Gremlins movies: the horrifying apparition which propels the plot springs from the mind or body of an apparently gentle protagonist. The Other Half is monstrous, but these films are not merely anarchic up-endings of the established order. Ultimately, they are about the taming, acceptance and integration of one's 'bad side'.
This is always a good lesson for children. But Monkeybone is not a kids' film. With its endless stream of raunchy gags and dangerous visions, it aims for the older, savvier market that likes Jim Carrey movies or Being John Malkovich (1999).
This pitch is, however, richly paradoxical: to really appreciate Selick's sensibility, one has to regress to a childlike state, while still keeping part of one's brain on pop lore and the collected works of Freud. Dumbing down has rarely been this invigorating.
© Adrian Martin May 2001