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MOVIE REVIEW : A Magical ‘Mask’ Sends in the Clown : The film’s star, Jim Carrey, is adept at physical humor and has a likable screen presence. And Industrial Light & Magic’s special-effects tricks are something to see.

TIMES FILM CRITIC

This is the summer Hollywood has decided Cartoons-R-Us. First “The Flintstones” had actors re-create cartoon roles, then “The Lion King” offered pure animation, and now comes “The Mask,” in which a flesh-and-blood performer is turned into an elastic, living cartoon.

Much of the early buzz about “The Mask” involved the wizardly computer-generated special effects that allow kick-sand-in-my-face bank clerk Stanley Ipkiss to turn into an off-kilter superhero whose India rubber body contorts like Spiderman and absorbs punishment like something out of Looney Tunes.

And, masterminded by the imps at Industrial Light & Magic, who ought to just wrap the visual effects Oscar and take it home, the tricks in “The Mask” are something to see. When the Mask’s body recovers from being flattened like a tortilla and his eyes literally pop out at the sight of a beautiful woman, audience eyes are likely to roll as well.

Yet despite all this technology it is heartening to report that “The Mask’s” sine qua non, the factor it would be hard-pressed to live without, is the actor who plays both the cartoon and alter ego Ipkiss, Jim Carrey.

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Best known as the lucky man whose salary made a Roadrunner leap to millions per picture after the unexpected success of “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” Carrey is revealed here as a comic actor of charm and talent.

Not only is he adept at physical humor, the kind of knockabout stuff that recalls the classic silent clowns, but Carrey also has a bright and likable screen presence, a lost puppy quality that is surprisingly endearing.

And when he plays the Mask, wearing a supple and non-confining latex facial apparatus designed by Greg Cannom, Carrey displays a manic side as well, doing riffs from old movies and dishy impersonations of everyone from Elvis to Clint Eastwood to Sally Field accepting her Oscar.

Amid all these amusing elements, it may not matter very much that “The Mask” runs out of energy faster than its star does. Though director Charles Russell knows how to keep things loose and playful, the movie doesn’t aspire to be more than a gaudy showcase for Carrey’s ability and ILM’s magic, and anyone looking for something else is open to disappointment.

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In line with this, Mike Werb’s screenplay, based on a story by Michael Fallon and Mark Verdeiden and before that on a comic-book character, is less a sturdy narrative than an extended premise on which all these assorted antics can be hung like ornaments on a tree.

The pre-Mask Ipkiss lives and works in Edge City and wonders why nice guys finish last. A shy pushover and dupe whose primary emotional attachment is to his clever terrier Milo (one of the more entertaining of recent dog performances), Ipkiss just about stops breathing when sultry Tina Carlyle (Cameron Diaz) stops by his desk at the bank.

A headliner at the chic Coco Bongo Club, Tina is also the girlfriend of mobster Dorian Tyrel (Peter Greene), but Ipkiss can’t get her out of his mind. And though the movie presents Tina as little more than the scantily clad physical embodiment of Roger Rabbit’s wife Jessica, model Diaz, in her first screen role, has enough presence to help us see past the tinsel.

At a particularly morose point in his life, Ipkiss comes across a nondescript green wooden mask, which, he later learns, is probably of Scandinavian origin and carved to represent Loki, the Norse god of mischief, permanently banned from Valhalla for his pranks.

Not surprisingly, then, when Ipkiss puts the mask on, havoc breaks loose. Normally timid, he becomes an amoral live wire out of one of the Tex Avery cartoons he admires, a party animal with a face the color of key lime pie capable of robbing banks and whirling off like a pastel tornado.

That robbery aside, the Mask isn’t really a bad guy, and his most memorable moments are song-and-dance riffs so antic that in interviews Carrey has taken to calling his character “Fred Astaire on acid.” Whether passionately twirling with Tina in a canary-yellow ensemble, playing the maniac French boulevardier in beret and loud pants or turning a SWAT team into a conga line with his Cuban Pete impersonation, Carrey is a treat on his feet.

While no one wants to look this kind of gift horse in the mouth, it is hard to watch “The Mask” without wishing its pluses were attached to a story even a trifle more inventive or involving. But in the glory days of Cartoons-R-Us, that is an awful lot to ask.

* MPAA rating: PG-13 for “some stylized violence.” Times guidelines: violence of the cartoon variety and a steamy dance sequence.

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‘The Mask’

Jim Carrey: Stanley Ipkiss/The Mask Cameron Diaz: Tina Carlyle Peter Riegert: Lt. Kellaway Peter Greene: Dorian Tyrel Amy Yasbeck: Peggy Brandt A New Line Productions presentation in association with Dark Horse Entertainment, released by New Line Cinema. Director Charles Russell. Producer Bob Engelman. Executive producers Mike Richardson, Charles Russell, Michael De Luca. Screenplay by Mike Werb, based on a story by Michael Fallon and Mark Verdeiden. Cinematographer John R. Leonetti. Editor Arthur Coburn. Costumes Ha Nguyen. Music Randy Edelman. Production design Craig Stearns. Special makeup created Greg Cannom. Visual effects consultant Ken Ralston. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

“The Mask” was originally scheduled to open and be reviewed Friday, but the film is being previewed tonight on 1,500 screens nationwide, including a large number in Southern California. The film will be seen on an additional 700 screens beginning Friday.


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