By turns frenetic and flat-footed, “Mr. Magoo” is an uninspired live-action comedy based on the 1950s and ’60s UPA cartoons about the misadventures of a near-sighted eccentric. Despite the abundance of slapstick and an overall skew toward younger viewers, pic may hold little appeal for pre-teens, since the original cartoon shorts are no longer in wide TV circulation. Older ticketbuyers aren’t likely to care much, either. Expect a fast fade from theaters, and only slightly longer visibility on video store shelves.
In this version of the Magoo mythos, Quincy Magoo (Leslie Nielsen) is a sight-impaired millionaire who’s too stubborn to admit that he really, really needs eyeglasses. Most of the time, he can rely on his attentive nephew, Waldo (Matt Keeslar), and his faithful bulldog, Angus, to remove the more obvious obstacles in his path.But despite the best intentions of man and beast, Mr. Magoo has a habit of strolling into trouble. While presiding at the gala opening of a museum exhibit, he accidentally disrupts the proceedings by cutting a power line instead of a ceremonial ribbon. Then he wanders into a mummy case — he thinks it’s a telephone booth — and assumes the inhabitant is a heavily bandaged accident victim.
And so it goes. While Mr. Magoo remains in the mummy case, two cat burglars enter the museum to steal the Star of Kuristan, a priceless gem. Luanne Leseur (Kelly Lynch) is the brain and the beauty of the team — thick-witted Bob Morgan (Nick Chinlund) is merely along for the ride — and she soon has second thoughts about turning the gem over to their boss, Austin Cloquet (Malcolm McDowell). But while trying to abscond with the booty, Luanne accidentally turns the Star of Kuristan over to the blissfully oblivious Mr. Magoo.
Magoo becomes the target of an international manhunt led by two bumbling U.S. government agents (Stephen Tobolowsky, Ernie Hudson). To clear his name, he enlists nephew and bulldog to help him follow a trail that leads to Cloquet’s ski-resort enclave, and then to the Brazilian domain of arch-criminal Ortega “The Piranha” Peru (Miguel Ferrer).
Because he’s chronically unable to read signs, and can’t tell the difference between a paddlewheel and an escalator, Mr. Magoo repeatedly places himself, and those around him, in grave danger. Each time he does, however, fate, luck or screenwriting contrivance intervene. To be fair, it should be noted that a few gags here have little or nothing to do with near-sightedness. Unfortunately, given the recent career history of pic’s star, too many of these bits play like outtakes from “Naked Gun” comedies.
Nielsen offers yet another variation on what has become his signature persona , an indefatigably self-assured bumbler. And though it’s difficult to think of a more appropriate way to play this character as written, Nielsen’s shtick is getting stale. Still, the veteran actor goes through his paces energetically enough, and gives more to the pic than it ever gives him.
Screenwriters Pat Proft and Tom Sherohman have labored mightily to cobble together a plot capable of stretching to feature length the one-joke premise of the six-minute cartoons. At 87 minutes, however, “Mr. Magoo” feels padded and repetitious. Even more disappointingly, director Stanley Tong (“Supercop,” “Rumble in the Bronx”) fails to infuse pic with the high-spirited exuberance that prevailed in his Hong Kong action-adventures with Jackie Chan.
Lynch provides a few bright moments of impressive physicality and first-rate comic timing as Luanne. Other supporting players rise to the demands of the material — that is, they don’t knock themselves out.
Pic is bracketed by animated sequences that have Greg Burson filling in for the late Jim Backus as the voice of Mr. Magoo. Other tech credits are routine. Closing credits begin with an apologetic announcement: Nothing in “Mr. Magoo” should be interpreted as “an accurate portrayal of blindness or poor eyesight.” No kidding.