Apparently not content with overseeing 75 percent of Fox's Animation Domination Sunday nights, Seth MacFarlane has decided to take his talents to the multiplex as well. Today brings the release of the Family Guy creator's live-action filmmaking debut Ted, about a young boy's magical wish that results in his loveable stuffed teddy bear coming to life. But before you accuse MacFarlane of getting soft in his old age, be aware that the film's family-friendly aura lasts only as long as its pre-credits prologue. Because, as with so many things, once Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) and his boy John (Mark Wahlberg) grow up, they ain't so cute anymore... and neither is the movie.
What Ted lacks in cuddliness, though, it makes up for in comedy. I'll be honest: I'm not a regular viewer of any of MacFarlane's numerous cartoons and several of my problems with those shows recur here as well. But I can't deny that the guy mined a number of big laughs out of what would seem to be a one-joke premise. He also sets out to tell a real three-act story here, as opposed to a 20-minute blast of free-associative gags. Not a revolutionary story, mind you; at heart, Ted is yet another Judd Apatow-esque tale of an overgrown adolescent who has to learn how to put away childish things and grow up for the good of himself and the lady in his life, Lori (Mila Kunis, the voice of the Griffin clan's bespectacled teen daughter Meg on Family Guy). But MacFarlane does seem genuinely invested in this narrative, inasmuch as he plays it straight and avoids the kind of meta-commentary that's a staple of his shows. He also comes up with a practical explanation as to why the world isn't freaking out about the fact that a talking teddy bear is roaming the streets of Boston, where he, John and Lori share an apartment filled with pot paraphernalia and memorabilia from the boys' favorite film of all time: the 1980 camp classic Flash Gordon. See, Ted's sudden burst of life did make him a celebrity back in the day. But like all manufactured stars, the public eventually grew weary of him and he's now a has-been, free to move about without being harassed save for a few die-hard fans who still remember his glory days.
His title character's status as a pop-culture relic also cannily gives MacFarlane license to regularly return to his favorite source of humor: vintage movies, TV shows, commercials, video games, musicians... hell, any kind of media that was around during the '80s and '90s. (Family Guy is so dense with references to and spoofs of the pop culture from those two decades, it's practically a collegiate course.) So we get jokes about Tiffany, Hootie & the Blowfish and, of course, Flash Gordon, a reliable running gag that culminates in an extended cameo from a certain Flash cast member that will delight every fan of that movie that's sitting in the theater... all three of them (four, including myself). There are also brief appearances by more contemporary celebrities (among them Norah Jones and a certain Hollywood leading man that I'll decline to name, because the double take at seeing him is too much fun to spoil) and a coterie of seasoned scene-stealers in supporting roles, among them Joel McHale as Lori's a-hole boss, Patrick Warburton and Matt Walsh as John's co-workers at the crappy rental car agency where he toils and Patrick Stewart as the unseen narrator whose voice pops up on the soundtrack from time to time. And whenever there's a lull in the comedy, MacFarlane can just have Ted swear, proposition a woman or act in some other outlandishly rude way under the assumption that there's nothing funnier than seeing a CGI-teddy bear act like a boor. And as much as I hate to admit it, he's not entirely wrong about that.
The longer Ted goes on, though, the more MacFarlane's limitations begin to shine through. For example, the format of a series like Family Guy and American Dad allows him to introduce random tangents without necessarily having to follow through on them. That's not the case with a conventional Hollywood narrative, where something big that's introduced in the first act is expected to pay off in the end, even if it's a clearly bad idea. Which is how we wind up with a terrible subplot involving Giovanni Ribisi as an unbalanced dad (Ribisi playing a crazy person? Gee, that's novel) who is eager to bring Ted home as a plaything for his tubby, psycho-in-training pre-teen son. Although these two characters fall completely flat from their first scene, they're obligated to stick around for the movie's action-oriented climax, much to the displeasure of everyone onscreen and in the audience. MacFarlane's frat boy sensibilities also become apparent in the casually homophobic gags that Ted and John frequently exchange (you know, the usual "Hey, I'm not gay but..." stuff that's more annoying than cruelly offensive) and the way that all the women in the movie are gorgeous, stick-thin model types who have no apparent interests beyond the men in their lives. That's a shame, because Kunis has shown off her comic chops before and it's a sign of her director's failure of imagination that he doesn't let Lori really mix it up with John and Ted, instead forcing her to spend much of the movie standing off to the side shaking her head at their childish antics like the hottest grumbling Mom this side of Marge Simpson.
Even when the movie's energy flags, there's one person onscreen who is always giving his all and that's none other than Mark Wahlberg. I'm not kidding when I say that this is one of his best performances to date, right up there with Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees and The Departed. The key to those roles, as it is here, is humor; much like Bruce Willis, Wahlberg earns big paycheck playing stolid action heroes, but he has a much stronger screen presence when he's allowed to crack a smile, not to mention a joke or two. It's his goofy earnestness that makes him so amusing here, as well as his total conviction at sharing the screen with an animated teddy bear. He treats Ted as a legitimate co-star, not a special-effects stunt. (Bob Hoskins accomplished a similar feat in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and while Wahlberg isn't quite on Hoskins's level -- really who is? -- that's a good role model to have.) One of the movie's best scenes is a knock-down-drag-out fight between Ted and John that ends with Wahlberg on the floor with his pants down, while the bear whips his buttocks with an antennae. Subjecting your body and pride to that kind of punishment without breaking character has to be worthy of some kind of Oscar, right? Or, at the very least, a Golden Globe.
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