Show Me the Monkey
Dicks and money. Dicks and monkeys. Money and monkeys and dicks—such are the preoccupations of Henry Selick’s stop-animation film version of Kaja Blackley’s graphic novel Dark Town. In Monkeybone, we are given visual representation of (presumably) every man’s internal struggle, between his social conscience and his unbridled testosterone frenzy. Here, the stereotype of, or patriarchal apologia for, “uncontrollable” male sexual misbehavior is diminutized into one naughty little monkey, so that we can all laugh at his crass chauvinism, greed, and sexual predation. Hey, it wasn’t me, it was my monkey! Worse, there is something vaguely racist in aligning male sexual aggression with the monkey, especially considering the history of race in, at least, the United States where black men have been equated with monkeys, and black male sexual agency cast as “primitive,” “animalistic,” and “predatory” of white women. If only Monkeybone could see that far.
The story follows Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser), cartoonist and creator of the mischievous character Monkeybone (voiced for the film by John Turturro). Stu has recently found love with sleep therapist Dr. Julie McElroy (Bridget Fonda) and is about to pop the question, just as his comic strip has been picked up by Comedy Central, when a car accident leaves him in a coma. In Stu’s life, such rain always falls: he has spent much of it mopey and depressed. His originary sexual trauma is illustrated in the pilot episode he screens for the cable network bigwigs. It seems that in elementary school, Stu, while watching his teacher write on the blackboard, begins to be aroused by the sagging flesh hanging off the back of her arms. Naturally, the teacher and his fellow classmates all see the pup-tent in his pants, and little Stu is humiliated. But at the last second, in a desperate act of displacement, he claims the bump under the backpack he has placed across his lap is his stuffed monkey friend Monkeybone, who has mysteriously just come alive.
This classroom humiliation leaves Stu confused, paranoid, and withdrawn. His sleep is beset by horrible nightmares, all concerning castration in some way, until he hooks up with Dr. McElroy at the Sleep Institute. She helps him work though his sexual trauma and through art therapy steers him toward the creation of Monkeybone. In this case, Dr. Julie represents the “civilizing” mission of femininity, to domesticate the primal sexual urges of men (or so the story goes). It’s all about his dick; this time it is Julie who will teach Stu the proper physical and psychological care and use of said organ.
It is no surprise that after the accident, Monkeybone comes screaming out of Stu’s subconscious with a vengeance. Comatose Stu abides in Downtown, a netherworld halfway between the land of the living and the Land of Death. And here, again, is a weird sort of racist logic in which the freaks, monsters, and monkeys are all confined to Downtown, just as racist ideology has historically conceived of minority communities as site-specific to urban centers and inner cities. Anyway, it is here that Stu meets up with Monkeybone, and his sexual alter ego abuses and makes fun of his wimpy boss at every turn.
From here on the story couldn’t be more obvious. Two things must happen: 1) For Stu to die now would be tragic, so he must return to the land of the living to be with the woman he loves, and 2) before that happens, somehow Monkeybone must return to earth and take over Stu’s body, wreaking unimaginative bad-boy havoc. The rather convoluted plot that gets us to this point is needlessly complex and, to be honest, rather silly and boring. Suffice it to say this two-point scenario is precisely what Monkeybone delivers, right up to the cheesy ending in which boy-gets-girl, love conquers death, yadda, yadda, yadda.
When he takes over Stu’s body, Monkeybone immediately notices Julie and Stu’s poor living conditions and apparent lack of money. Surely, he muses, his creator must be rich and famous for having brought to life a character such as he—he’s all male ego, of course. Well, where Stu failed, the new Stu/Monkeybone will succeed, and he quickly makes a series of merchandising deals with Stu’s agent Herb (David Foley), that Stu had previously dogmatically rejected. In Monkeybone’s fascination with material possessions, the film oddly (or perhaps not so oddly) connects male sexual agency and, more importantly, sexual potency, to wealth and class privilege. The irony of course (which, again, the movie can’t see), is that this is just one little monkey who compensates for his smallness with big money signs—insert standard joke about the reverse correlation of men with flashy, expensive sports/muscle cars to the owner’s genital endowment.
For all of the distinctions it tries to draw between “good” Stu and “bad” Monkeybone, Monkeybone ends up valorizing the rude little chimp’s piggy behavior. Monkeybone even goes so far as to assert that he is a necessary component of male subjectivity and sexuality; before he can be returned to the land of the living Stu must be psychologically reunited with Monkeybone. As Death (Whoopi Goldberg) tells Stu, “Without him, you’re a little too vanilla.” The implicit message is that as pathological as he might be, the behavior and psyche Monkeybone represents adds a little sexual spice to both men’s and women’s lives. Immediately before the end credits roll, we are shown another installment of the Monkeybone cartoon, in which all the characters in the film reappear in animated form, dance around and rip off their skins to expose the Monkeybone underneath. So, the film tells us, we all have, or would like to have, a little Monkeybone inside of us. Well, hopefully not.