The Mask still holds up today for a number of reasons, not least of which is its decision to mostly abandon the comic on which it's based. The original Mask comics, which first started properly running in 1991 imagined “a combination of Tex Avery and The Terminator" and were heavy on the gore and violence.
The movie, which is leaving Hulu at the end of September, keeps some elements of the original but puts its money on Jim Carrey and Cameron Diaz to carry things. It was the right bet. The movie is in service to Carrey and Diaz, giving them the star treatment that would solidify their careers for decades.
Of course, it’s mostly Carrey’s film. He plays Stanley Ipkiss, the put-upon nice guy banker who suddenly finds a magical mask that turns him into a living cartoon character. He bounces off of walls, appears in bright yellow suits, yells out “Somebody stop me” and “Smoking,” acting zany in all the ways that would make the character a Weird Twitter legend decades later.
But what really sells the transformation are his pre-Mask scenes, especially with Diaz. After getting rejected by a would-be date, Ipkiss and his friend Charlie are lovestruck by a woman in red who walks into the bank. Making her acting debut, Diaz plays the scene as a femme fatale, secretly recording the bank’s inner workings for her gangster boyfriend.
But her chemistry with Carrey is set instantly. Carrey, who before his big breaks in The Mask and Ace Ventura was a featured player on the sketch comedy show In Living Color, is acutely aware of when to dial up his physicality and when to let it build. After Diaz pulls his tie in closer and he becomes a puddle in her hands, his entire body shakes as he sticks a pen into a pencil sharpener and quickly throws it away.
It’s a small moment, but it makes the transition from Ipkiss to Mask completely believable. Here is someone whose entire body is giving away their every emotion, and then along comes a mask that puts it all on display in the loudest way imaginable.
The movie focuses very little time and energy on the mask itself, saving the small backstory for a scene with Ben Stein as a professor explaining its connection to Norse gods — but none of that sci-fi mumbo jumbo really matters here.
Given the unlimited nature of the Mask’s powers, the question of how far to stretch its powers was crucial. One original idea for the movie, from one of the comic’s creators, Mark Richardson, concerned a mask-maker who took faces off of corpses to put them on teens and turn them into zombies. Director Chuck Russell, whose debut came from the third Nightmare Before Elm Street movie, was no stranger to violence.
He found something familiar in the comics, perhaps too much. “It seemed that the comic was very influenced by the Nightmare on Elm Street films,” he told a fan magazine at the time. “The Mask was basically a one-line horror comic. I was crazy about the concept but the violence put me off a bit...I wanted a less grim and much more lively world.”
As a result, The Mask vibrates color. Not just the mask’s greens, but the bright blues and purples of the nightclub at the center of the movie. The singing, the dancing, the way this movie actually revolves around a 1940s-style gambling nightclub as if that was the coolest place anyone could possibly attend in 1994. The entire thing is very silly and utterly watchable years later. In refusing to be defined by any specific moment in time, The Mask is timeless.
The Mask is streaming on Hulu until September 30.