- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2001

"Monkeybone," a comic fantasy in which Brendan Fraser plays a cartoonist whose identity is stolen by one of his cartoon characters a ribald ape while he lingers in a coma, would appear to be something of a hard sell.
If the movie does catch on as a cult attraction, fans who possess an original copy of the source material, an obscure comic book titled "Dark Town," will be holding a scarce collectible.
Director Henry Selick says the property came to his attention about five years ago, after he had completed the movie version of Roald Dahls "James and the Giant Peach." He was pondering projects that would use his specialization, stop motion and puppet animation.
"I think a friend of the author sent it, a one-off comic book from a very small publishing house," he says. "It was the first episode of what was meant to be a longer story. The author was named Kaja Blackley; the illustrator, Vanessa Chong. The basic premise was that a puppeteer was in a coma; his spirit was trapped inside this puppet world. We learn that his beloved cant take it anymore; in 24 hours shell pull the plug on his life-support systems. Thats where the comic ended. Absolutely dangling, but with the hint that death might prove his ally in some way."
No character was called Monkeybone. He emerged after Mr. Selick and screenwriter Sam Hamm began playing around with the premise and changed the profession of the comatose protagonist, Stu Miley, hoping to facilitate humorous elements that were less prominent in the comic book. Monkeybone is a frankly lewd alter ego.
"I thought the basic idea was very arresting the idea of a deadline facing a character trapped in a seemingly helpless condition," Mr. Selick says. "The style of the illustrations, though not carried through in the movie, was also very arresting. The people I brought in took the material in a different direction, adding a lot of slapstick to the dark humor."
Persuaded to take an option on "Dark Town," whose slumbering, sometimes nightmarish world of the unconscious is called Down Town in "Monkeybone," Mr. Selick immediately thought of Mr. Hamm as a collaborator. "Sam is still best known for working with Tim Burton on the first 'Batman movie," he notes.
The filmmaker says the PG-rated "Monkeybone" might be best suited to juveniles age 10 or older or "arrested males of all ages, not that I want to discourage women from attending."
"I imagine some of the violence might be a little disturbing for the youngest kids. We went for a certain kind of comedy. Monkeybone is Stus libido, this part of him that hes ashamed of. It comes to life and roars out of control. We werent looking for risque material, just gags that seemed to fit the story. We toned down a few things."
Mr. Selick, who was born in Glen Ridge, N.J., almost 50 years ago and raised in nearby Rumson, displayed talent for illustration when he was a boy. "I was one of those kids who drew constantly better than most, I suppose," he says. "I backed away from it at a certain point, because I was tired of the attention."
Eventually, Mr. Selick came back to illustration and discovered animation as a way of unifying several things that attracted him: painting, photography, pop music. He had been a rock musician in high school and discovered that "playing in bands helped when it came to laying out scenes in a rhythmically effective way." (Historical note: Mr. Selick recalls that Bruce Springsteen was hired to play at his senior prom in Rumson.)
A bit of a collegiate nomad, Mr. Selick began at Rutgers University with the intention of majoring in science but transferred to Syracuse as an art major. He found an interim semester at St. Martins School of Art in London extremely satisfying. Enrolling for further art study at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia during the mid-1970s, he joined one of the early groups recruited for a Disney-subsidized course in character animation.
Mr. Selick completed two acclaimed short animated films, "Phases" and "Tube Tales," while he was a student at CalArt. He also recalls "talking myself into the vain belief that I could make a living with short films."
In a manner of speaking, he did make a living with them a decade later. Hired as an animation trainee at the Disney studio, Mr. Selick spent five years there, becoming a full-fledged animator with "The Fox and the Hound" and making such friends as Tim Burton and John Lasseter. An idea Mr. Burton kicked around during his Disney apprenticeship later emerged full-blown as "The Nightmare Before Christmas," which became Mr. Selicks debut project as a feature director in 1993.
Mr. Selick saw the test film combining cel and computer animation that Mr. Lasseter, now the pre-eminent creative force at Pixar, made in collaboration with Glen Keane.
"Im surprised it took so long for that breakthrough to catch on," he says, "but Disney was uncertain of where it wanted to go at that time. The feature animation projects werent that exciting. I was one of several people who were looking to get out."
Mr. Selick was attracted to Northern California in 1981 by the offer to work on "Twice Upon a Time," a small-scale animated feature directed in San Francisco by John Korty and released, spottily, two years later. That job led to employment on "Return to Oz" and later Carroll Ballards film of a Seattle Ballet production of "The Nutcracker."
By 1986, Mr. Selick had started his own production company and thrived making logos and animated segments for an emerging cable colossus, MTV. He also rejuvenated the Doughboy for Pillsbury in a series of commercials and dreamed up the Ritz Bits campaign that had miniature crackers skiing down peanut butter slopes. He was busily turning out commercials and MTV spots when Mr. Burton, eminently bankable after the success of "Batman," persuaded Disney to bankroll "The Nightmare Before Christmas."
Mr. Selick closed his production company a few years ago and rented studio space for the animated segments of "Monkeybone." A number of projects stalled before he committed to his new feature. For a while, he was involved in a film version of "Shrek," a William Steig comic fantasy that will reach the screen this summer as a DreamWorks feature in a computer animation format.
"I thought it would be a perfect stop-motion film," he says, "but the mighty Jeffrey Katzenberg intervened and made the producer an offer that couldnt be refused. There are still stories best suited to stop motion rather than cel or computer animation. Everyone can see how it suits 'Chicken Run. The Aardman people are brilliant, and their characters and stories are so strong that it doesnt really matter if their animation style is less sophisticated than others.
"A lot of people I worked with on 'Nightmare and 'James have gone into computer graphics to make a living. Theyve pretty much stopped experimenting with stop motion, which isnt generally preferable for special effects and lacks some of the flexibility of cel and computer illustration. If you want to simulate realistic-looking dinosaurs, for example, CG is far superior."

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