Guest Movie Review: Ted
Isn’t it interesting to think that at one point, not too long ago, TV show runner and voice actor Seth MacFarlane’s career was actually in jeopardy? The former Hanna-Barbera animator and writer broke into the big leagues when he introduced his adult-oriented animated sitcom Family Guy, featuring the dysfunctional Griffin family of Quahog, Rhode Island, on the Fox Network back in 1999. But after a successful first season, the network was shocked (shocked!) to learn that pitting such a niche show against the proven competition of CBS’ Survivor and NBC’s #1 comedies Frasier and Friends could somehow lead to rapid ratings drops. Faster than you can say “Joss Whedon” the supposed successor to the legacy of Matt Groening was cancelled in 2001.
For most television series, that would be the end. But something unexpected happened. The show, which had developed something of a cult following, gained an incredible second life in Comedy Central reruns. The combined first and second seasons of Family Guy were incredibly popular on DVD, with total sales second only to the first season of the much-beloved Chapelle’s Show. This in turn rekindled Fox’s interest, and they proceeded to make Family Guy the first television show to be revived based on DVD sales.
Since then, MacFarlane has been nigh unstoppable. Alongside the successful return of the Griffin family to TV in 2005, he created a brand new TV show, American Dad!, which retained Family Guy’s family sitcom setting but added the wrinkle of the main character being a gung-ho American CIA agent. When that show also proved strong in the ratings, MacFarlane spun off one of his more popular Family Guy characters into The Cleveland Show in 2009. Despite constant criticisms against his scripts’ supposedly indecent content from organizations such as the Parents Television Council (PTC), MacFarlane has become a shining light for Fox Television and an icon in the animation industry. That’s why, when he decided to become a feature film director, it was a bit of a surprise that his first Hollywood film would be a live action comedy, so unlike most of his previous work.
Despite its obvious differences, Ted is very much a spiritual successor to MacFarlane’s animated shows. The film feels very much a part of that same universe and as a bonus treat is narrated by American Dad! star Patrick Stewart. In 1985 Massachusetts, young, lonely John Bennett wished that his new Christmas gift, a large teddy bear, could talk and become his best friend. His wish came true and twenty-seven years later John (Mark Wahlberg) and Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) are still inseparable, much to the chagrin of Lori (Mila Kunis), John’s girlfriend of four years. A nice guy but a relatively immature man-child, John needs to grow up to move to the next level in he and Lori’s relationship, and she doesn’t believe he can do it with the equally irresponsible Ted holding him back. John is eventually forced to agree, and helps Ted get his own apartment and a job at the local supermarket. Throughout the course of the film, John must balance his loyalties between his best friend and his girlfriend, and as we’ve seen dozens of times before this, there’s no movie if everything actually goes smoothly.
Despite the story’s retreading of the tired “bromance vs. romance” plot, that isn’t what gives MacFarlane’s fans a film worth watching. Instead it is the director’s trademark dirty humor that will determine whether or not you want to sit through a little under two hours of familiar territory. From a flashback scene declaring that “Chris Brown can do no wrong” to his pairing of Ted romantically with a human woman (as he regularly does with dog Brian in Family Guy), MacFarlane pushes the envelope of what is acceptable, without giving much care as to “political correctness” or “decency.” His leads tend to be overly honest with themselves and the outside world, even to the point where they could be construed as racist, misogynistic or homophobic – and yet we’re encouraged not to judge them too harshly. Other MacFarlane staples include cutaway scenes that overly exaggerate past moments for the sake of humor, and seemingly random celebrity appearances, including those by songstress Norah Jones, actor Tom Skerritt and Sam “Flash Gordon” Jones, who was an idol to John and Ted growing up. Despite being a live-action production, the film positively reeks of its animated predecessors, and probably shouldn’t be attempted by the MacFarlane uninitiated.
This level of unabashed fun can only be mastered when you have the type of characters and actors to pull it off, and Ted is no different with the cast MacFarlane has assembled. While Wahlberg is not at his best (it’s difficult to settle for “ordinary” with him after gems like The Departed and The Fighter), he still maintains the likable attitude that helped raise him to the star he is today. Possibly the best thing about his performance is the friendship with Ted, which sees the pair fighting one moment and hugging the next, walking that perfect tightrope that is long-time friendship. Question the story all you like, but the friendship between Wahlberg and his little buddy is anything but half-baked. Kunis meanwhile continues to improve and impress, showing depth and character far removed from her That 70’s Show career starter. For anyone who actually watched The Book of Eli or Date Night only a couple of years ago, that represents a huge change for the better.
But it is (and had to be) MacFarlane who makes all the difference in the world, making Ted unlike anything you’ve seen on the big screen this year and in many before. Not only is the digitally-animated character so seamlessly inserted into every scene that he appears photorealistic, but rarely is Ted given something to say that is not immediate comic gold. For Ted to work, it was important that MacFarlane not only not forget how ridiculous his story was, but embrace it fully. It worked for co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller in the surprisingly excellent 21 Jump Street, and that was a story that could have lived in our universe. With Ted’s less-than-realistic premise, the script had to be a hundred times crazier to be anything close to believable. And so one must give credit to MacFarlane for getting the job done correctly on both sides of the camera.
Finally, it was nice to see a film set in Boston in which I actually recognized the areas of the city in which it took place. Far too many films use Toronto and other cities to represent my hometown, so it was a pleasant surprise to see the city getting the attention to detail from a local director like MacFarlane. It wasn’t just instantly-recognizable locales like Fenway Park or the Zakim Bridge that caught my eye, however, but the local streets in the middle of the city that only a native would recognize. It’s obvious the director wanted the city to be represented authentically, down to every side street and pothole.
Ted is the most rollickingly funny movie I’ve seen since 21 Jump Street, though it does not quite match that film’s often brilliant screenplay. Ted definitely relies on the special brand of low-brow toilet humor that MacFarlane does so well, but if anything that makes its ascent to my spot of #4 movie of 2012 all the more surprising. My opinion will not be universal, of course. There will be plenty of people for whom the highly offensive dialogue will simply confirm their already-negative opinion of this director. But fans of MacFarlane’s work can and will certainly rejoice, with the knowledge that everything they love about their favorite cartoon shows has transferred nicely to the big screen with his debut. Sure, it might be more of the same, but when it is done this magnificently, you can forgive the minor transgressions, just sit back and laugh. You won’t be alone.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast living in Boston. Check out Hello, Mr. Anderson for the latest film reviews.