Poor Henry Selick. His kooky talents have no place in Hollywood.

It was Selick's dubious honor to direct one of the most wonderful pictures ever seen, Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas. The honor was dubious because with Burton's name incorporated into the title, the film was understandably perceived as Burton's alone; many of Nightmare's most devoted fans still don't know it was Selick, not Burton, who directed the film.

But while Nightmare's original idea was Burton's, the finished product bears much of the uniquely twisted touch Selick brought to such shorts as Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions. Even if Nightmare was Selick channeling Burton, I'd argue it vastly outclasses anything Burton himself has directed.

Of course, Disney's marketing pixies had no idea what to make of a dark, not-quite-kid's picture like Nightmare. They released it with the softest whisper of publicity, and they must have been stunned when it did respectable business, gradually becoming a spectacular cult hit. Now, nearly a decade since the film's release, Goth kids across America surround themselves with brand-new Nightmare merchandise.

Figuring they had something potentially marketable with Selick, Disney next attempted to remake him in their image. James and the Giant Peach featured a cast of mainstream bores and the ickiest score Randy Newman ever banged out. A rancid fruit indeed, Peach landed at the box office with a wet splat.

Since Selick hadn't scored an unqualified mainstream hit with the darkly sweet Nightmare or the sickly sweet Peach, his next film, Monkeybone, would be a radical departure: an edgy gross-out comedy. In addition to Selick's customary astonishing visuals, it would feature a hip young cast, hot tunes and lots of fart jokes.

As a longtime admirer of Selick's work, I sniffed trouble from Monkeybone's previews. Brendan Fraser. The Offspring. Fart jokes. I went in fearing the worst, and I was pleasantly surprised. A goofily surreal tale of a cartoonist trapped in his own subconscious, Monkeybone almost seemed to have been dreamed up to appeal to me specifically, featuring everything from hilarious turns by Mr. Show veterans to Bridget Fonda in a breathtaking little silver dress to the paintings of Mark Ryden come to nightmarish life.

There is no better audience in the world for Monkeybone, and it almost makes me feel guilty to admit I wasn't wholly delighted with it.

I can't point to any one thing and say it didn't work. Even Fraser is surprisingly good, although lord knows I could have done without watching him do a solo dirty dance to Marvin Gaye. Monkeybone's hardly a masterwork, but it's still a whole pile of fun.

Sadly, Monkeybone is bombing like the Enola Gay. Its studio, Twentieth Century Fox, hardly helped matters by releasing the film during the deadest week of February and scarcely advertising outside NYC and California. Shortly before Monkeybone's release, Fox panicked and ordered a major re-cut, and that could well be the source of the film's problems. Clearly, Fox feared they had a debacle on their hands, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perhaps Monkeybone could find an audience if the critics were behind it, but they're not. Actually, most reviews of the film have used phrases such as “dreadful,” “unspeakable” and “I would gladly kill and devour my firstborn before seeing this film again.” Okay, I made up that last one, but just barely. Many reviews have, incredibly, singled out Monkeybone's amazing art direction for special abuse. Richard Roeper actually compared the film's aesthetic to The Banana Splits, making me wonder if we saw the same Monkeybone.

Following this fiasco, I imagine Selick will be relegated to the production of CD-ROMs. If so, Hollywood and my fellow critics will have a lot to answer for. We should be celebrating visionary filmmakers like Selick, not pissing on them when they fail in fascinating ways. But film critics are a cowardly, superstitious lot, and once a film starts to get tagged as a stinker, the actual film can get lost amidst the hysterical, escalating putdowns. That's what happened here.

Ignore the critics. Catch Monkeybone in the theaters while you still can. In a few years, you can laugh when critics who now loathe the film hail Monkeybone as a cult hit they always loved.

Monkeybone was directed by Henry Selick; written by Sam Hamm; produced by Chris Columbus, Mark Radcliffe and Michael Barnathan; and stars Brendan Fraser, Bridget Fonda, Paul Reubens, Rose McGowan and Whoopi Goldberg. Now playing countywide.

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