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Trivia question: What do eight of the twelve top-grossing films of all time have in common?

Answer: Special effects by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the production studio founded by George Lucas in 1975. In less than two decades ILM has garnered thirteen Academy Awards for its handiwork. E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, the Star Wars trilogy, the Indiana Jones series, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Jurassic Park A ILM played a major role in all of them. Some would say as big a role as the actors, actresses, writers, and directors. Some would say bigger.

Attacking the ascendancy of fancy computer-generated imagery over traditional cinematic elements such as plot, dialogue, and acting is all the rage among film purists. In their rush to dazzle those all-important fifteen-to-twenty-five-year-old viewers, filmmakers are giving short shrift to the medium's potential for illuminating the human condition, or so the argument goes. Sure, there's room for the occasional adult-oriented sleeper like The Crying Game, Like Water for Chocolate, or Four Weddings and a Funeral, but it's no coincidence that all three of those films were produced outside of the U.S. If you want to make an American exhibitor's pulse quicken, give him a lifelike tyrannosaur terrorizing a carful of kids every time. Even "serious" Hollywood offerings like Forrest Gump rely on technological wizardry to broaden their appeal. After all, where would that production be without its shots of Tom Hanks mooning LBJ, peering over George Wallace's shoulder, or shaking hands with JFK? Definitely not in the running with True Lies and The Lion King as the summer's biggest hit.

Instead of judiciously using special effects to enhance their storytelling, filmmakers nowadays concoct plots to serve as mere pretexts for jaw-dropping visuals. This bothers a lot of people who still cling to the antiquated notion of cinema as an art form. What they forget (or intentionally overlook) is the fact that back in cinema's infancy people didn't go to movies for cultural enrichment. They went because those flickering images were magic, and magic is fun. Of course, that initial sense of wonder peaked with The Great Train Robbery in 1903, and the magic has steadily worn off as viewers became more sophisticated and caught on to the tricks of the trade.

But now filmmaking has come full circle. Computer imaging and digital technology have rocketed movies to another level, one where it's once again possible to make viewers scratch their heads and muse, "How'd they do that?" Our sense of wonder has been restored. 'Toons and humans interact in Roger Rabbit; an alien morphs from solid to liquid in Terminator 2; water takes on human form in The Abyss. And, in The Mask, a man doesn't just interact with cartoon characters, he becomes one.

This latest ILM tour de force features rubber-faced Jim Carrey -- a pretty animated guy to begin with -- as a timid bank clerk who undergoes a radical transformation when he discovers and dons an ancient mask with magical powers. Carrey's last picture, Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, was one of those so-stupid-it's-funny exercises (you know, like Jerry Lewis's The Nutty Professor). It cleaned up at the box office even as it left critics retching. Of course only someone who reviews films for a living would be clueless enough to take a movie like Ace Ventura seriously in the first place. The Mask should be equally vexing to the stuffed shirts; the story is idiotic, the dialogue is sophomoric, and the acting is, by and large, regrettable. And it will probably make a fortune because the movie delivers on a larger promise It makes you laugh. Period.

When Carrey puts on the mask, his character becomes a Tex Avery cartoon run amok, a green-complected, zoot-suited, mambo-dancing Tasmanian devil. His eyes bug out of his head, his tongue rolls out like a carpet, and he bounces around a room like a ricocheting bullet. Love him or hate him -- and he has his detractors A Carrey is a gifted physical comedian. And the sorcerers at ILM build upon and augment those gifts so skillfully that you're never sure where the real Carrey ends and the animation begins. The combined result is a manic, over-the-top screwball performance worthy of the Nutty Professor himself.

As was the case in The Nutty Professor and other Lewis classics (does anyone out there remember The Family Jewels, in which he had seven different parts?), things slow down drastically when Carrey plays it straight. Sure, he's got a certain likable guy-next-door charm when he isn't contorting his face like putty (as did Lewis). But no one went to Ace Ventura because Carrey was being touted as Brando's heir. They went to see him riff, and he obliged them in spades. The same can be said for The Mask.

Carrey-as-cartoon is not The Mask's only asset. Ben Stein deadpans drolly, and the movie's final act belongs to a scene-stealing terrier. But if you have a low tolerance (or no tolerance) for Carrey's brand of slapstick, forget it. Carrey vamps his way through 70 percent of the movie; with the exception of Stein's cameo and the dog's antics, the rest is unwatchable.

How stupid is too stupid? The Mask couldn't care less. The movie is every bit as witless as it appears to be in its promotional trailer -- even dumber than the Naked Gun series, and that's saying something. If your idea of comedy is The Philadelphia Story, or if you view film only as a medium for thoughtful artistic expression, save your money. Woody Allen should be releasing something soon. In the meantime, those who want to have a little fun should try on The Mask.


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