Talk about scraping the bottom of the barrel. Disney, the studio responsible for some great animated films in the past and of recent, has been on a recent binge of remaking old movies as well as digging up old TV shows and turning both into big screen movies. In the past year we've had "That Darn Cat," "George of the Jungle," and "Flubber" (a remake of "The Absentminded Professor"). Now you can add the wildly popular and well known "Mr. Magoo" to that list.
Okay, wipe that confused look from your face. "Mr. Magoo" was a short-lived TV cartoon that aired from 1960 through 1962 and featured a short, older man who was extremely nearsighted. Sporting the voice of Jim Backus (best known as Thurston Howell III on TV's "Gilligan's Island"), the series came and went without much fanfare and then pretty much disappeared from the collective American psyche. Not wise in the ways of leaving what's well enough alone, Disney has brought back Magoo and with it a small firestorm of controversy.
This past summer the National Federation of the Blind protested the movie's production saying that Magoo's bumbling, nearsighted character was "an insult to blind people." While Magoo isn't blind, and isn't as badly portrayed as in the old TV cartoon, there is something to be said about using a person's "shortcomings" as comedic fodder (see the film's disclaimer under the "Bad Attitudes" category). Considering that and the fact that few people born after the mid 60's remember Magoo -- and certainly few if any kids have any awareness of the character -- it's surprising that Disney would go to such efforts to make what would turn out to be such a horrendous movie.
I'm not talking about the treatment of the blind issue, but the torturous treatment of moviegoers in general. This is the sort of film they would have used in "A Clockwork Orange" to punish Malcolm McDowell's character into being passive. Of course he -- McDowell, not Alex his character -- just so happens to be in this movie, so this time he's brought it upon himself. Aimed at no one over the age of say, seven or eight-years-old, this film may even be insulting to them.
It uses the occasional, but standard elements found in "low brow" kids films -- sped up film, goofy sounds, and stupid characters such as a man who thinks his ski mask is "bad" because he can only see through one eye hole (he has it turned sideways on his head). While a few kids laughed at some of the hijinks (in particular, some brief moments where Magoo's dog prevents him from tripping over things), and a few adults chuckled here and there, this film is a terrible blunder.
Most of that can be attributed to the overall inane presentation, with a great deal of that falling on director Stanley Tong's shoulders. Why the director of martial arts movies such as "First Strike," "Rumble in the Bronx" and "Supercop" -- all staring Jackie Chan -- was chosen to direct a kids film is completely beyond my level of comprehension. One character, played by Kelly Lynch, has some martial arts moves in her arsenal, but you can't tell whether Tong added those once on board, or whether he was simply hired because there were such scenes already in the script. Whatever the case, he's certainly not the right man for this job.
The Jackie Chan movies certainly don't approach high art by any means, but at least they deliver what they're supposed to, and almost always in a self-deprecating way. Tong's approach in this film is to play the comedy down so low that it will knock your feet out from under you by hitting you in the ankles. This is the kind of material you'd expect to find in the latest "Police Academy" movie, and even then that might be giving this film too much credit (and please don't tell me Guttenberg and company are coming back -- I couldn't take a film like that and this one in less than a year's time).
The characters are written so flat you couldn't see them if they turned sideways, the plot is simplistic to the point of being maddening, and most of the performances fall below even those standards. What's most surprising is that the script was co-written by Pat Proft (the writer of the "Naked Gun" and "Hot Shots" films). Showing nothing near the fun, imaginative work of those movies, perhaps the blame needs to be aimed on the other co-writer, Tom Sherohman. After all, his previous writing credit was for 1981's "Modern Problems," the Chevy Chase debacle, all of which seems more in line with the lackluster material found here.
Yes, we know, it's not supposed to be taken seriously and it is supposed to be goofy. I'm not some old fuddy duddy and I can accept and enjoy such films when they're done properly. Case in point is last summer's "George of the Jungle." Was it stupid? Yes. How about funny? You bet. Finally, was it entertaining for all ages? Exactamundo. This film only meets the first criteria.
Leslie Nielsen gives it an okay shot and bears a passing resemblance to the diminutive cartoon character (a difficult appearance to reproduce). He has a few mildly amusing moments, but they're few and far in between and nowhere near the caliber of work he gave us in the "Naked Gun" series and what's here certainly can't save this film. It's amazing to think that Nielsen started out as a serious performer (such as playing Commander Adams in 1956's sci-fi classic "Forbidden Planet"), and then transformed over the years into the fumbling comedic boob. Nonetheless, it's doubtful he ever would have imagined he'd find himself in a movie like this.
The same goes for Kelly Lynch who does a complete one hundred and eighty-degree turn from her normal work for this role. While she hams it up quite a bit, this is as far as one could get from her acclaimed performance in "Drugstore Cowboy" (1989). The same can be said for Malcolm McDowell, although his decline into playing the stereotypical villain has been in a work in progress for some time now. Once a gifted actor with varied and tremendous performances (in "A Clockwork Orange" and the brilliant "Time After Time"), McDowell is now resigned to acting in computer games or be a film's villain every so often.
Of course Disney falls into that same category of "how could they have been involved with this?" Mining for another potential hit, they've come up with nothing but mud, or better yet, sludge. Hopefully the pilfering of old shows will soon end, and they will start telling some imaginative new stories to entertain the little ones as well as their parents. Perhaps the best thing about this film will be its financial failure that might prevent Disney and other studios from continuing their mining efforts (although "George of the Jungle" -- as the exception -- might give them incentive for years to come). Our advice about this movie -- act like Magoo and pretend that you don't see the theater as you walk by. You'll be happy you did. We barely give "Mr. Magoo" a 1 out of 10.