The Mask

(1994) *** Pg-13
102 min. New Line Cinema. Director: Chuck Russell. Cast: Jim Carrey, Cameron Diaz, Peter Riegert, Peter Greene, Amy Yasbeck.

/content/films/3292/1.jpgThough New Line didn't know it yet when they agreed to let director Chuck Russell cast him in the lead of The Mask, 1994 would be the dawning of Jim Carrey as a movie star. Not long after that wise choice, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective opened to good numbers and significant notice for its rubber-faced, limber physical comedian. Soon, American theaters were saturated with Carrey's boldly over-the-top acting and seemingly everyone had their own version of Carrey's catch phrases from The Mask: "Sssomebody stop me!" "Ssssmokin'!"

The Mask is pretty thin material, but it still holds up for the same reason it worked in 1994: Carrey unleashed in a part tailor-made for just that purpose. When, in 1995's Batman Forever, Carrey's Riddler would ask (implicitly of his audience), "Was that over the top?", the answer would be, "Um, yeah." But Carrey's version of the raging, unrestrained id of pushover Stanley Ipkiss—unleashed by the titular mask—was unimpeachable. Carrey's job was to play a cartoon come to life, and nobody does it better.  (One could complain that Ipkiss in repose remained a bit overplayed, but who's counting?)

A breakthrough project for Dark Horse Entertainment, The Mask derives from a comic book created by writer John Arcudi and artist Doug Mahnke from a concept by publisher Mike Richardson. The original books' "comic horror" shifts to an oxymoronic but surprisingly effective "comic noir" in Russell's film, with a script credited to Mike Werb (story credit to Michael Fallon and Mark Verheiden).

In the polluted urban jungle of Edge City, bank clerk and "big nothing" Ipkiss suffers the torments of the damned shy. An encounter with stunning torch singer Tina Carlyle (Cameron Diaz, in her debut) leads Ipkiss to the Coco Bongo Club, but when he fails to get past the velvet ropes, he stumbles instead onto an ancient relic: a magical mask modelled on Loki, the Norse god of darkness and mischief, The mask has the power to transform its wearer into a powerful, uninhibited, reality-bending, green-faced projection of inner desire; since Ipkiss is a closet cartoon lover, his heroic version of himself is a zoot suited whirling dervish with the bulging eyes, flapping tongue and devilish smile of Tex Avery's Wolf.

Ipkiss' nocturnal Jekyll-Hyde adventures are further complicated by a gangland conflict between a hood named Tyrell (Peter Greene) who's looking to overthrow his crimelord boss Niko (Orestes Matacena). Also in Ipkiss' orbit are his co-worker and friend Charlie (comic Richard Jeni), a suspicious detective (Peter Riegert), newspaper reporter Peggy Brandt (Amy Yasbeck), Joseph Campell-esque Dr. Arthur Neuman (Ben Stein), and Stanley's loyal Jack Russell terrier Milo (Max).

It's true that Carrey, a special effect in himself, is the main event, but The Mask couldn't have succeeded without his principal partner in crime: Industrial Light and Magic. Their special effects work here is nothing short of brilliant, and redefined the cutting edge of what was possible on film. Russell has the chops to bring it all together, including musical numbers (Royal Crown Revue on "Hey Pachuco" and Carrey's showstopping "Cuban Pete") that cleverly took advantage of the '90s swing revival in perfect harmony with the Looney Tunes vibe of the story. Carrey's tailor-made Nutty Professor turned out to be a well-deserved sleeper blockbuster, and the start of something bigger for the larger-than-life star.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1

Street date: 12/9/2008

Distributor: Warner Home Video

New Line's The Mask comes to Blu-ray in a transfer that, while an improvement over the DVD, remains problematic. Mild vertical jitter can be a distraction, and Digital Noise Removal wipes away some of the detail we expect in a Blu-ray upgrade (some of the softness may be attributable to the source, though it's hard to say how much). Still, the framing and colors have improved quite a bit from New Line's initial DVD effort. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound options are quite fine, with good use of surround effects. The high-res option is without doubt the definitive aural presentation of the film.

The Blu-ray also preserves bonus features minted in 2005, beginning with a commentary by director Chuck Russell. Russell always makes a good, lively host: he's a movie buff himself and a genre fan, so he has a sensibility in line with the sort of people who'd sit through a commentary track. He shares plenty of interesting stories about the film and his approach.

The 2005 commentary by Russell, New Line Cinema co-chairman/co-CEO Robert Shaye, screenwriter Mike Werb, executive producer Mike Richardson, producer Bob Engleman, visual effects supervisor Scott Squires, animation supervisor Tom Bertino, and cinematographer John Leonetti shares the wealth in terms of conceptual, production and post-production details by editing together comments by the eight participants. It's a good option for those who want more nitty-gritty detail than the featurettes provide.

Two must-see "Additional Scenes" (3:54, SD) are included, with optional commentary by Russell: "Viking Scene—Alternate Opening" and "The Death of Peggy." The retrospective featurette "Return to Edge City" (27:16, SD) lays out the film's bumpy development, comic adaptation, risky concept and casting, the contribution of the dog Max, and crucial effects. Interviewed are Engleman, Richardson, Russell, Shaye, Werb, Jim Carrey (archival), Leonetti, animal trainer Steve Barens, and Bertino.

"Introducing Cameron Diaz" (13:17, SD) allows casting associate Mark Paladini, Russell, casting director Fern Champion, and Shaye recount how Diaz got dragged into stardom. "Cartoon Logic" (13:43, SD) discusses the oeuvre of bygone cartoon master Tex Avery and how the special effects team worked with Carrey to bring it to life (most intriguing: Carrey's raw footage compared to the added effects). Participants include Russell, animation historian John Canemaker, Bertino, Squires, Leonetti, Shaye, and Berens.

"What Makes Fido Run" (10:51, SD) finds Hollywood dog trainers Berens, Nicole Zuehl, and Brandon McMillan discussing their work, illustrated by clips from New Line films. Last up is the "Theatrical Trailer" (1:58, SD). On balance, The Mask is worth picking up on Blu-ray, though it'd be nice to get a sharper, more rock-steady transfer, especially since it's the reason to upgrade.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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