WHO KNEW, Mr. Magoo? Who knew, until this week, that you were a cartoon character of ridicule? Who knew that you were "an ill-tempered and incompetent blind man," rather than an eccentric, avuncular and nearsighted old guy with a knack for causing accidents without being injured in them?
Once upon a time, we laughed.
But, it turns out, not everyone thought Mr. Magoo was funny.
Blind people, many of whom were kids when Mr. Magoo had his own television show, were glad to see him retire in the late 1960s. (I, on the other hand, was sorry to see him go.)
Now the blind are upset about Magoo's return from the darkness.
Calling the squinting, peach-nosed character an insult, the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind has called on Disney to stop making a new Mr. Magoo movie, with Leslie Nielsen in the title role, that is due out at the end of the year.
The NFB says the stereotype of Mr. Magoo is as offensive to the blind as Little Black Sambo and Amos 'n' Andy are to blacks. "The Disney people have dragged Mr. Magoo back from richly deserved obscurity in the hope that Americans will think it's funny to watch an ill-tempered and incompetent blind man stumble into things and misunderstand his surroundings," said Marc Maurer, president of the organization.
Oh, Magoo, you've done it again.
As a kid -- and then some -- I used to look forward to "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol." It was an hourlong network special that featured Magoo (voiced by Jim "Thurston Howell III" Backus) as Scrooge, and I thought the Goo Man deserved an Emmy. He was a master thespian! As I recall now, Magoo played Scrooge straight-ahead, as a dramatic, not comical, character. Nor was Scrooge portrayed as blind, or even nearsighted.
But let's face it. In all the other Magoos -- particularly his half-hour cartoon shows on NBC and CBS, still available on cable -- he was funny because he couldn't see. (Or refused to wear corrective lenses.)
He was funny because of a handicap.
And he was funny because he was a cartoon -- a fiction, made from lines drawn on paper.
Now Disney wants to revive Magoo and make him human, in the person of Nielsen, a comic actor with fairly strong box-office appeal. (Can't Hollywood come up with an original movie? What's with all the revivals of old cartoon characters anyway? Coming July 16 to a theater near you: "George of the Jungle.") In a statement this week, Disney said the movie portrays Mr. Magoo as "a kindly gentleman who is nearsighted, not blind" and "does not in any way make fun of or demean blind people."
Anybody out there believe a comic film about Mr. Magoo won't be based on slapstick exploitations of his handicap? If I were blind, I'd be angry at the prospect of movie theaters full of kids laughing hysterically at the antics of a blind man (mistaking livestock for people, driving his car on sidewalks, trying to make cash withdrawals from soda machines).
"Mr. Magoo did a great deal of damage to my image of myself as a human being," says Marie Cobb of Baltimore, a delegate at the NFB convention in New Orleans.
I'll bet most of us who have the blessing of sight never even thought about this until the NFB raised the issue. Any baby boomer out there remember your parents snapping the TV off with an admonition that you not watch Mr. Magoo because he mocks the blind?
Yeah, I know. Whatever happened to fun?
Part of the answer is this: Fun comes with new rules, one of which says you don't make humor out of things people cannot control -- their skin color, their ethnic origin, their physical conditions. So I guess the very nature of Magoo violates that rule.
The thing is, I can't join in demanding Disney stop production of the movie, because I think all filmmakers -- from the obnoxious megacorporation to the grunge independent -- should be allowed to produce any movie they choose. We don't like it, we don't buy it.
So here's where I leave it: Mr. Magoo was funny once, before the rules changed. The cartoon was of a certain time and place, with no offense meant by its creators. (They always made sure the Goo Man prevailed, after all.) But humor based on a handicap? We can do better than that now.
Disney gets the flak it deserves. Criticism by, in this instance, the National Federation of the Blind, is the price it pays for a lack of originality, for betraying the joy of imagination, for reaching back 30 years to recycle a character who should have been allowed to rest in his one-dimensional cartoon world.
Disney has millions, probably billions. But it's all muscle and no brains.
This Just In appears each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact Dan Rodricks by voice mail at 410-332-6166; e-mail at TJIDAol.com; or address letters to The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.
Pub Date: 7/04/97