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A CLUELESS 'MR. MAGOO' BUMBLES NOWHERE QUICKLY

When the gifts are open and the kids already bored, and there are still unfilled days of vacation left, then what? Thank goodness there are a sleigh full of family movies playing.

But take it from this movie elf, fight the temptation to see "Mr. Magoo" with more resolve than you show with the Christmas cookies.

With all the promise of a silly, side-splitting comedy, "Mr. Magoo," unlike Santa, just doesn't deliver the goods.

"Mr. Magoo" is a Disney adaptation of the beloved cartoon series about a near-sighted millionaire whose myopia gets him -- unknowingly -- into one jam after another. And Leslie Nielsen would seem to be the perfect Magoo.

Few comedic actors have Nielsen's knack to amuse adults while also sending the kiddies into fits of giggles. From "Airplane!" to the "Naked Gun" trilogy, Nielsen's bumbling-yet-debonair wit has made those films' overly literal style the premier American comedy genre. Some even refer to it as "intelligent." (Though that may be a bit hopeful.)

It's difficult to translate a cartoon to the big screen, not because it's tough to replicate the visual effects but because it's dicey to mess with America's dearly held icons of nostalgia. "George of the Jungle" made a successful cartoon-to-movie transition, but then, we weren't talking about someone as reverred as Jim Backus, the voice of Magoo, TV's favorite blue-blood.

Magoo the cartoon character obliviously meanders onto construction sites, train tracks and into the cages of lions at the zoo, emerging without scrape or scar. Just as blithely as he wanders into harm's way, he escapes from danger never even knowing how close he was.

Suave, well-meaning Lt. Frank Drebin of the "Naked Gun" series bumbles through life, too, but he's aware of the mess he has created. And therein lies the distinction. The moment Lt. Drebin realizes he's in a pickle is just when things start to get good. The whole "How's he going to get out of this one?" is the very essence of Nielsen's quasi-genius.

So Mr. Magoo's utter cluelessness robs us of those great Leslie Nielsen moments.

In the movie tale, wealthy Quincy Magoo, tycoon and museum benefactor, is invited to cut the ribbon at the opening of a new wing at the city's art gallery. There, the magnificent star of Kuristan, a ruby the size of a fruitcake, is on display. Accompanying the jewel is a representative from the nation of Kuristan, Stacey.

Stacey. I haven't been to Kuristan lately, but I somehow doubt there's anyone there named Stacey. (Tiffani, maybe, but not Stacey.)

Anyway, after Stacey catches the eye of Magoo's nephew Waldo (played by an overeager Matt Keeslar), he and "Unc" (as Waldo calls him) are more than happy to help their new Kuristanish friend.

Kickboxing jewel thief Luanne Leseur (Kelly Lynch) makes a double play to steal the ruby and bewitch Magoo. An uncomfortable feeling creeps in when kindhearted Magoo falls, smitten, for Luanne posing as a reporter. This is someone who's legally blind. And old. And we're laughing at him. (Or supposed to be.)

Hapless U.S. agents played by Ernie Hudson and Stephen Tobolowsky, trying to rescue the ruby before it falls into the hands of the evil Austin Cloquet (Malcolm McDowell), wind up suspecting Magoo.

The script is a turkey. Because it's so poorly written, it's badly cast. Even a brilliant cast can't do much with a crummy script, but that's not the case here.

The movie Magoo makes you want to sneer, exasperatedly, "Get fitted for contacts already" in a way the cartoon never did. Of course, Magoo doesn't know he can't see; he simply sees the world differently than we do. Which makes you wonder -- does Magoo have a case of myopia or schizophrenia?

The disclaimer at the end of the film comes off as a disingenuous justification for poking fun. Kind of like saying, "I'm not racist, but did you hear the one about . . . " It grandly states that many disabled people have jobs and families and lives. Big news flash for anyone disabled, I bet.

It defeats the spirit of the season to take the kids to a movie that exploits disabilities, as it also exploits our susceptibility to nostalgia-itis.

It's just not nice to laugh at something we can't help.

REVIEW
Mr. Magoo
Rating: * 1/2
Leslie Nielsen bumbles his way through a Disney action-comedy based on the lovable but clueless cartoon character Mr. Magoo. Also starring Kelly Lynch, Ernie Hudson, Stephen Tobolowsky and Malcolm McDowell. Directed by Stanley Tong. Rated PG, Opening today in area theaters.

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