The Mask: Still Smokin’- A 25th Anniversary Retrospective
by Ben Martin
Man, oh, man, I’m starting to feel old. This year marks two-and-a-half decades of Jim Carrey (Kidding) being an absolute star. Carrey’s meteoric rise from a comedic actor managing to make a living to global superstar is thanks to his starring in three huge comedies in 1994. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective was released in February of ’94 and audiences found that couldn’t get enough of Carrey. Thankfully, their thirst for new comedy king of the 90s would be quenched with the release of The Mask months later in July of that year. Finally, Carrey capped the year off with a favorite comedy and mine, and many of the folks I grew up with, Dumb and Dumber that December.
My favorite out of Carrey’s ’94 trifecta is most definitely The Mask. I can distinctly remember the first time I saw the film at the house of some family friends, The Heafners. Despite my being a little scared of Dorian’s (Peter Greene) transformation at the time, I loved the movie! And why wouldn’t I have? The Mask is a quintessential 90s film; there’s the colorful cinematography, the humor, the tone, and of course, Carrey. More important than being one of the best products of its time though, The Mask is a more important comic book movie than people give it credit for being. But, I’ll get to more on that later. For now, let’s look at where The Mask began:
The initial concept that eventually inspired The Mask comic book series was conceived by artist Mike Richardson for an indie publication called APA-5 in 1985. A year later, Richardson founded Dark Horse Comics and handed the concept off to several different writers and artists. (Most iterations of which don’t resemble The Mask, as it would come to be known.) By 1989, the Dark Horse founder sold the film rights for this ever-evolving concept to New Line Cinema. Considering that the studio was known as “The house that Freddy [Krueger] built,” it’s no surprise that New Line wanted to adapt this violent comic into a new horror franchise. In the early 90s, they hired director Chuck Russell (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors) to do just that. However, Russell was more interested in adapting the limited series comic of The Mask created by writer John Acuda and artist Doug Mahke.
Acuda and Mahke indeed took the initial concept of Richardson’s and ran with it, making the protagonist of the series a character known as Big Head. A violent hybrid inspired by The Joker and Tex Avery animation. This original limited series ran from July-December 1991. Following the story’s success, Acuda and Mahke created a four-issue sequel (also in limited series format) entitled, The Mask Returns (October 1992-March 1993.)
Not being overly familiar with this source material, I decided to go back and get acquainted. In reading the first couple of issues of the original limited series of The Mask, I found that I dug it. However, much like the movie in review here, this original series of comics is most definitely a product of its time. The art style, in particular, has that vibrant, yet simultaneously diluted color palette of the era; The Maxx being a perfect comparable comic book example. Still, I will be going back to read the rest of that original run. Despite liking the comic, I can undoubtedly understand Russell’s inclination to tone down the violence for the filmic version. Had the director not taken such a route, the movie adaptation of The Mask would have been extremely violent, and more likely than not a bit horrific.
To ensure that he could take the tone of the comic book in a more comedic direction, Russell hired screenwriters Michael Fallon (The Virgin of Juarez) and Mark Verheiden (who also adapted another Dark Horse comic, Timecop) to pull from the source material and create the film’s story. Once the screen story was in place, screenwriter Mike Werb (Face/Off, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) was brought on to expand it into a screenplay. After writing a couple of drafts of the script, Russell and Werb realized that Jim Carrey was the perfect person to play the film’s lead. Thus, Werb’s next draft of the screenplay was written specifically with the actor in mind. Upon reading the script, Carrey fittingly said, “I feel like this was written for me.” New Line ended up procuring Carrey for a bargain of $450,000 as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective had not yet been released. Following that film’s success, Carey was paid $7 million for Dumb & Dumber.
After snagging their star, it was essential to cast the female lead next. The producers’ original inclination was to cast Anna Nicole Smith as Tina Carlyle. However, that all changed when Russell saw then 22-year-old model, Cameron Diaz (There’s Something About Mary). Still, the director had to convince the movie’s producers that Diaz was right to play Tina. As a result, the model-turned-actress ended up auditioning for the female lead a total of 12 times. In the end, she landed the part a mere week before production began, making her acting/film debut.
The Mask focuses on a mild-mannered banker, Stanley Ipkiss (Jim Carrey). Stanly is the definitive nice guy; yet, he always finishes last. Even after attracting the attention of a beautiful singer at the hottest club in town, Tina Carlyle (Cameron Diaz), he can’t seem to get anything going for himself. As he walks home, feeling dejected one night, Stanly finds an ancient mask. Upon putting this mask on, Stanley transforms Big Head (although that name is never uttered in the film.) When he wears the mask, Stanley’s Id is unleashed; turning him into a nearly-invulnerable, super-powered human cartoon! Not surprisingly, the green-faced, yellow zoot-suited tornado soon attracts the attention of Edge City’s police and criminals alike.
For me, The Mask is a near-perfect picture. Aside from a few of the jokes falling a little flat, I think this film holds strong after 25 years. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking, “Aw c’ mon man, that’s just nostalgia talking.” I might agree with such an assumption if I had not watched this film a least a dozen times post-childhood, in my teenage and adult years. The reason I think The Mask works so well is because all of the right choices were made.
Firstly, every casting choice in this movie is impeccable. In his performance as Stanley/Big Head, Jim Carrey is at the height of his comedic powers; showcasing every comedic gift he has in his rubber-faced arsenal. In fact, the only aspect of his talents Carrey doesn’t get to utilize is dramatic and/or dark side. (Which audiences at the time would not have been ready for at the time as evidenced by the box-office bomb that was The Cable Guy (1996) a couple of years later.) Just as Carrey is perfect for the titular role, the entire film’s cast is ideal for their respective roles as well. Cameron Diaz’s screen presence is exquisite; as is her chemistry with her fellow cast members. Even the supporting characters, albeit them archetypes, of Lieutenant Mitch Kellaway (Peter Riegert), Dorian (Peter Greene), and Charlie Schumaker (Richard Jeni) are all top-notch thanks to the actor’s inhabiting them.
When combined with the cast, the real magic of The Mask lies in its execution. Along with Russell’s direction, the cinematography by John R. Leonetti (Mortal Kombat, The Conjuring) and production design by Craig Stearns (The Blob (1986)) help to bring the comic book to life. All the while infusing it some neo-swing style 90s energy in the process. And again, I cannot credit director Chuck Russell here enough. His instincts to adapt this comic for the broadest audience while maintaining its spirit and tone were on-point!. Frankly, I think The Mask is one of the best comic book movies of the 1990s. More than that though, it is a more significant comic book movie than folks realize.
See, this flick was the first successful comic book film that doesn’t feature Superman or Batman. The Mask was also the first adaptation of a Dark Horse Comics titles in history, and still one of the most successful. Most of all, I feel The Mask manages to honor its source material while finding the perfect balance of darkness and humor. A feat that most comic book movies (outside of many of the ones produced by Marvel Studios) fail to achieve today. Heck, in my estimation, we would not have the cinematic version of Deadpool that we have today without The Mask. Believe it or not, when Deadpool was created in the 90s, he was initially a much more straightforward, less-humorous character. It wasn’t until after The Mask, in the early aughts that Deadpool became a meta-comedian, similar to Big Head.
While I wish The Mask was remembered more as the excellent comic book movie, it is as opposed to a Jim Carrey vehicle; it was still incredibly successful. It grossed over $350 worldwide on a budget of $23 million. The Mask was also the first picture starring Jim Carey movie to gross $100 million domestically. (Get your shot glass ready though, because Batman Forever (1995) was the third movie featuring Carrey to achieve such a financial feat.) Not long after the release of The Mask, a video game and animated series inspired by it, released in 1995.
Meanwhile, New Line Cinema was looking to line their pockets with greenbacks from the green-faced hero; and audiences were clamoring for a sequel. Thus, a follow-up was soon announced for which Carrey, Diaz, and Russel were signed. A contest sponsored by Disney Adventures and Nintendo was even launched to promote The Mask 2. Alas, this sequel never came to fruition after Carrey dropped out citing that he no longer wanted to do sequels to his own movies following Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995). However, a “sequel” did eventually come into being over a decade later with Son of the Mask (2005), starring Jamie Kennedy. The less said about that filmic abomination, the better.
Twenty-five years later, The Mask is still smokin’. Since ’94, there have been several limited comic book series starring ol’ Big Head. It also seems that the property might have life on the silver screen again as well. As recently as last month (July 2019), Mike Richardson bandied about the prospect of rebooting The Mask with a female comedian. In the meantime, if you haven’t watched The Mask in a while, I implore you to do so. While you’re at it, think about what place the movie holds in our modern golden age of comic book movies.
The Mask is Available on Digital HD, Blu-Ray, & DVD!