There are innumerable things wrong with “Son of the Mask,” an unrelievedly manic, gruesomely unfunny follow-up to Jim Carrey’s unexpected 1994 smash. But certainly the worst is how it trashes the great Looney Tunes shorts we all know and love. That’s surely not the intention; presumably it was meant as a homage, not an insult to their memory. But while Joe Dante might have been able to pull off the idea–he has both the affection for the old cartoons and the skill needed to recapture their magic–Lawrence Guterman (“Cats and Dogs”) certainly doesn’t. In his hands the movie is a disastrous mess. It’s actually physically painful to watch.
But one shouldn’t lay the blame solely on Guterman. After all, he was stuck with a script by Lance Khazei that couldn’t put more wrong feet forward if it tried. It starts with a prologue introducing Loki (Alan Cumming), the Norse god of mischief, who’s on orders from daddy Odin (Bob Hoskins) to retrieve the troublesome green mask he created. It then switches to Tim Avery (Jamie Kennedy)–the character’s name is clearly a nod to the great animation director Tex Avery, who must be spinning in his grave over its misuse. He’s a guy stuck in a low-level job at an animation company headed by a supposed genius named Daniel Moss (Steven Wright), whom he wants to approach with his ideas for new TV shows. He’s also resisting the urging of his wife Tonya (Traylor Howard) that they have a baby. But his dog Otis has found that magic mask, and when Tim wears it to a company party he not only makes a great impression with his madcap antics but comes home raring for action with Tonya. The requisite months later they have a young son named Alvey (Liam and Ryan Falconer), who–it soon becomes clear–has inherited Loki’s powers of transformation and mischief, which he begins using under the inspiration of old Looney Tunes masterpieces at a time when Tim is taking care of the kid alone (his wife is away on a business trip). Unfortunately, that’s the same moment when Loki is searching for the baby born with the power of the mask at his disposal and Otis, jealous of all the attention the baby’s getting, dons the mask and engages in a series of CGI-based shenanigans to get rid of the kid (think of this section of the picture as a cross between “Baby’s Day Out” and a Road Runner cartoon). Ultimately Tim has to make peace with both Otis and Tonya while battling Loki over Alvey and becoming a true father to his son. In other words, sappiness mixes with cartoon violence to prove a deadly combination.
“Son of the Mask” is a pretty big production–it boasts plenty of special effects in episodes modeled on old cartoon templates. “One Froggy Evening,” for example, is the inspiration for the manner in which Alvey drives Tim berserk–an even worse misuse of the classic than making the frog the WB Network mascot. Otis’ plots against Alvey, meanwhile, are basically Road Runner bits, though they’re so terrible that Wile E. Coyote has greater justification for bringing legal action against the filmmakers than he would against the Acme Corporation. The important point that escaped the people behind this monstrosity is that the sort of comic brutality that can work perfectly well in animated form comes across as ugly and unpleasant when done in quasi-live-action. It also doesn’t help that the CGI, while elaborate, is quite hideous too. The animated baby effect, for instance, doesn’t just seem a way-behind-the-curve copy of the dancing urchin bit from “Ally McBeal,” but proves more creepy than funny. (And it invites grossness, too, especially in a horribly overdone urination scene.) But the animated Otis and Tim sequences aren’t appreciably better.
One would like to sympathize with the cast, but that’s impossible: they undertook this tripe voluntarily. Kennedy plays Tim as though in a 95-minute television sketch, with the broadest of gestures and the leanest of comic results; Cumming continues his series of bewilderingly bad choices with a role even more dreadful than the one he had in “Spy Kids.” Howard comes on too strong–what a surprise. Hoskins, on the other hand, is lucky: his makeup is so extreme that he’s practically unrecognizable. In a disaster like this, that’s a real benefit. Ben Stein does his usual dead-voiced shtick as a museum guide in the opening scene, and Kal Penn mugs it up as Tim’s friend at work.
The only amazing thing about “Son of the Mask” is that it took a full decade to come up with a sequel this terrible, and that New Line invested an apparently big budget on it. (At least with “Dumb and Dumberer” they made it on the cheap.) But it’s a waste of time to try to figure out the thought processes of studio executives. By any standard this movie is a grotesque misfire. Time-Warner, which controls the Warner cartoon library, certainly owes the spirits of its old creators a profound apology for having allowed their masterpieces to be abused in such a horrendous fashion.