Blind Ambition

Live-action Mr. Magoo loses sight of cartoon character's appeal

There's no earthly reason we needed a live-action feature version of Mr. Magoo. But since we got one anyway, it should be said that there's no real excuse for it having turned out so miserably. If a kiddy movie doesn't even have the charm or inventiveness of the goofy little cartoons from which it's knocked off, what's the point? George of the Jungle was better--by a considerable margin--than this shabby-looking Disney comedy.

Mr. Quincy Magoo, the pleasant old gent who putters along perpetually on the brink of disaster but is too myopic to know it--and who is protected, apparently, by divine providence--debuted in 1949 as the star of theatrical shorts by Paul Burns. Ironically enough, Magoo was the product of UPA, an animation studio which had broken away from Disney after an artists' strike in the early '40s (this return to his roots hasn't served him well).

He came to network television in 1964, in an NBC series with the grandly Shakespearean title The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo. This show cast him, a la the current Wishbone, as heroes from history or literature--Ishmael in Moby Dick and the like. Magoo is almost certainly most fondly remembered for his turn as Ebenezer Scrooge in the holiday special Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, but his usual persona, though well-heeled, was not otherwise Scroogelike. He was genial, optimistic, self-satisfied without arrogance, happily oblivious to peril. His lovability arose from the blithe blue-blood nonchalance of his voice, provided by the late Jim Backus.

Leslie Nielsen is capable of being very funny, to be sure, but he's all wrong for this role. He's virtually the opposite of Backus. The whole key to Nielsen as a comic actor is that he's deadpan--so deadpan that, for several decades, no one knew he was a comic actor at all. It was in Airplane! that he found the gag that would make him star in the Naked Gun films and in other broad parodies: saying ludicrous things in a flawlessly stentorian voice. It's a good joke, but the dotty warmth which Magoo needs is outside his comedic range.

All the same, Nielsen is the least of Mr. Magoo's problems. The script, by Pat Proft and Tom Sherohman, is the worst. Yet another hopelessly banal stolen-jewel caper, with Magoo caught up in the intrigue, it doesn't exploit the basic possibilities in the material. There are, believe it or not, infuriatingly few scenes which center on Magoo's trademark gag--how his inability to perceive danger makes him impervious to it.

For Mr. Magoo to be worth doing, the title character would have to wander through the whole picture with the plot swirling all around him, and never realize how close he comes to catastrophe, or how he helps to save the day. But that would have demanded rigorous farce plotting, and Proft and Sherohman don't appear to have been up to it.

The director, Stanley Tong, is the Hong Kong action master who directed the wonderful Supercop--the best of the Jackie Chan vehicles to get wide release here. He has a gift for staging amusingly extravagant stunt sequences, and it shows, here and there, in Mr. Magoo--there's a scene set at an opera that has an authentic slapstick charge.

Apart from this, however, Tong is not a visually elegant stylist, and so the blandness of the script is reflected in the flat, drab images. It's a regrettably inauspicious U.S. debut for Tong. No one comes out of this film looking very good, for that matter, with the possible exceptions of the English bulldog who plays Magoo's harried guide Angus, and of Kelly Lynch, who looks spectacular as a disguise-hopping jewel thief.

That's about as much entertainment as the film has to offer, except for a dead-serious closing disclaimer asserting that it's not intended as an accurate portrayal of the visually impaired, and that vision problems need not prevent a person from leading a happy, useful life. This is, beyond question, the biggest laugh in the movie, but it also may just be the triumphant ne plus ultra of political correctness. Just dig on it for a minute--a disclaimer attached to Mr. Magoo. Where do we go from there?

Mr. Magoo
Directed by Stanley Tong; with Leslie Nielsen, Kelly Lynch and Miguel Ferrer.

Rated

 
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