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Director: Chuck Russell
Release Date: July 29, 1994
Stars: Jim Carrey, Cameron Diaz, Peter Riegert, Peter Greene, Amy Yasbeck, Richard Jeni
Rating: ★★★★½

Based on the comic book series of the same name ‘The Mask’ was originally conceived as a horror film, but was redrawn as a comedy-fantasy, leaving the comic’s violence behind, but retaining some of its dark overtones. The resulting film turned out be a great example of the animation renaissance that were the late 1980s and early 1990s.

‘The Mask’, of course, is a live action movie, but like that other, very influential live action feature, ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, ‘The Mask’ takes its inspiration from 1940s classic cartoons. The most obvious influence is Tex Avery: we can see the Avery wolf as a statue in Stanley’s apartment, where our hero Stanley Ipkiss (Jim Carrey) watches an excerpt from Avery’s ‘Red Hot Riding Hood’ (1943). The Mask later mimics the wolf scene at the Coco Bongo Nightclub, when watching his love interest Tina Carlyle (Cameron Diaz) perform. Another Avery reference is the ridiculously long car in which the Mask arrives at the club.

Other influences come from Warner Bros. cartoons: during the transformation scene Stanley turns into a whirlwind, which is clearly inspired by the Tasmanian Devil. To make sure, the film makers show a pillow with Taz’s likeness on Stanley’s couch during this scene. In some scenes The Mask has some character traits in common with the early loony version of Daffy Duck, and in one scene, The Mask behaves and talks like Pepe le Pew, Chuck Jones’s lovesick skunk.

But The Mask has most in common with Bugs Bunny: both characters are very confident, always ready to turn threat into comedy, both kiss their enemies, both have an ability to produce props out of nowhere, and both put on highly dramatic fake death scenes. The Mask’s death scene is a particular highlight of the film, with references thrown in to Aunt Em, Old Yeller, Tiny Tim and Scarlet O’Hara. During this scene even a fake audience stands up – another nod to Tex Avery.

The Mask’s cartoony antics were realized by computer animation, then still in its early stages. The computer animation was in the good hands of Industrial Light & Magic, also responsible for some other early milestones like the CGI in ‘The Abyss’ (1989), ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ (1991), ‘Death Becomes Her’ (1992), and of course, ‘Jurassic Park’ (1993). In those days CGI got visibly better with every film, thus back then the computer animation in ‘The Mask’ was spectacular in its novelty. In ‘The Mask ’the computer animation effects are all deliberately cartoony and unreal, and even if not all effects have aged very well, they’re still nice to watch.

Of course, Jim Carrey himself adds a great deal to the cartoony character of The Mask. At the time he was known by most as ‘that crazy white guy’ in the black comedy series ‘In Living Color’, and, indeed, in ‘The Mask’ he can be too much, but he shifts between his more timid Stanley Ipkiss character, and the wild Mask very well. The rest of the cast is in fine shape, too. Cameron Diaz makes her acting debut as the gorgeous Tina Carlyle, and although she’s introduced as a sex bomb in a classic scene, showing off her legs and boobs, Diaz gives her character a remarkable gentleness and depth, beyond the cliche ‘babe’ character. This is a remarkable feat giving the few scenes the character is given. No wonder ‘The Mask’ set her off on a great acting career.

Peter Greene plays a delightfully scary villain, and Peter Riegert has the unfortunate task to be the only actor to play it straight as Lieutenant Kellaway. But he’s better off than Amy Yasbeck, who is adorable as Peggy Brandt, but this journalist is the least convincing character of the whole movie. Special mention has to go to Max, the dog who plays Stanley’s dog Milo, and who manages to make this side character an entertaining addition to the cast. But even minor characters, like Dorian’s henchmen or the street gang are portrayed by fine actors.

Apart from the cartoon references the film breathes classic cinema, even though the story is set in a contemporary fictive metropolis called ‘Edge City’. First there are the cultural references. For example, the car Stanley Ipkiss loans, is an early 1950s Studebaker, at one point The Mask grasps a Tommy Gun popular with gangsters in the 1920s, he wears a zoot suit to the Coco Bongo Club, where Tina sings 1940s jazz hit ‘Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You’, and as Cuban Pete The Mask makes a complete police force doing the conga, an early 1940s dance craze. Second, the film noir atmosphere is highly enhanced by the lighting, as is the fantasy element with the film’s strong coloring.

Typically nineties are the environmental touches: the opening shot of ‘Edge City’ clearly shows a heavily polluted town, and when Stanley and Tina watch the sunset, this looks more like the Northern Lights, making Ipkiss remark “the methane emissions really pick up the colors”.

True to the source material, The Mask is not an entirely likeable character: he’s too grotesque, too creepy, and too maniacal for that. I don’t think anyone would have chosen a character wearing a bald green skull-like mask, if it had not already been in the original comics. In that respect it’s a puzzle to me that the film was followed by an animated series starring this character. In the film, Carrey mostly rescues the character from becoming appalling by using his comedy talents, but during the ‘love’ scene with Tina at the park he becomes genuinely frightening, despite the comic references, and one is relieved the cops rescue Tina from this all too insistent character.

Nevertheless, Carrey manages to make his nice, but all too timid pushover Stanley Ipkiss likable, and his transformation to a guy with guts believable. Apart from all the cartoon references, celebrating classic cartoon humor, ‘The Mask’ also manages to succeed in delivering its message: Be nice, but stand up for yourself, and don’t let people mess with you.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Mask’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Mask’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

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