Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Joel McHale, Giovanni Ribisi, Seth MacFarlane, Jessica Barth, Sam Jones, Norah Jones
(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 29 Jun 2012 (General release); UK theatrical: 1 Jul 2012 (General release); 2012)
Seth MacFarlane has to be the luckiest SOB in all of media. After his first run at Family Guy ended in cancellation, he managed the near impossible. The animated series found new life on DVD, mandating that Fox rethink the removal. That was seven years ago, and the crude, rude adventures of the Griffin clan is still going strong. As a matter of fact, MacFarlane has parlayed said rebirth into a pair of additional franchises (American Dad! and The Cleveland Show), a proposed remake of The Flintstones, and now a full length feature film, Ted. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, and a smart mouthed child’s toy, the results argue for MacFarlane’s obvious talents, as well as his need to find a more “open” avenue for his raunchy and randy style of humor.
When a lonely little Boston boy named John Bennett asks for a friend as a Christmas present, his parents provide the best possible answer - a cute stuffed bear. Wanting him to really be ‘alive,’ our half-pint hero makes a wish. Sure enough, Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) turns into a walking, talking novelty, even earning a brief stint as a pop culture phenomenon. Fast forward two-plus decades and John (Wahlberg) is sharing his shabby apartment with the former media star, both with lives going absolutely nowhere.
At least our human hero has a longtime girlfriend named Lori (Mila Kunis) who wants him to grow up and start taking some responsibility. And John does want to marry her, eventually. When he proves he’s unable to be a ‘man’, she delivers an ultimatum - have Ted move out, or else. While he can’t imagine living without his rude, crude ‘thunder buddy,’ John loves Lori, and will do anything for her. Elsewhere, a creepy guy (Giovanni Ribisi) and his equally odd son plot to steal Ted and make him their very own.
If the main complaint about most comedies is that they are just not very funny, Ted succeeds in saucy spades. It’s a riot, a wholly realized concept from a man who makes his living via a trademark ADD-addled approach. With Family Guy, MacFarlane and his staff simply throw ideas at the wall, wondering which will stick and which will require yet another aside or random cutaway. The characters are drawn -literally - in broad, buffoonish strokes, and when emotion or reality enters the animated fray, it usually falls flatter than the drawing boards used by the behind the scenes staff. With Ted, MacFarlane has to step up and own his ideas. He has to make people believe in a living teddy bear and all the questions surrounding it.
To his credit, he succeeds. We learn about Ted’s past as a pop icon, his eventual fall from grace, his horrible vices, boorish tendencies, and scandalous sins. He is a bad influence, dragging a ready to slack John all the way down to the numerous basement level bong hits. Like Guy, MacFarlane wallows in cheap excess. There’s drug humor, sleazy sexual innuendo, and enough blue gags to make Redd Foxx blush. But there’s also heart here, a real connection between the safety of childhood (and its myths) and the realities of growing up. Yes, Lori will have to learn that we don’t always have to abandon our protections from the past, just the ones that end up wrecking your car, destroying your career, and that brings hookers home for a night of furry fun.
Rendered in stunning CG and voiced with a full on Boston blurt accent, Ted is the tripwire for the entire experience. You’ll either get into the spirit of his freeloading lifestyle, or curse John for ever letting him liger for so long. Wahlberg shows what a great straight man he can be, offering up more clueless looks and haggard responses than Abbott ever had to deliver to Costello. Unfortunately for Kunis she has to start out in the thankless role of long suffering girlfriend. The script even gives her a ‘60s era boss (JOel McHale) who specializes in in-office inappropriateness (apparently, this movie has never heard of sexual harassment). Later, when it looks like she will lose John over his affection for Ted, her personality blossoms and she becomes complex and considered. In fact, the entire film ‘grows up’ right before our eye. When John is faced with the stuffed animal challenge, Ted drops a lot of the scatology to get (semi) serious.
Indeed, when the emotions kick in, Ted becomes a Summer 2012 surprise. We don’t expect to feel so much love for an inanimate object that swears, smokes pot, and subverts his ‘owners’ wishes. We’re supposed to be too cynical and jaded for that. But because we recognize that Ted only has John’s best interest at heart, that he can’t help but succeed in spite himself (his interactions with the manager of the grocery store he works at are classic), we’re in. Heck, even when he does bad things, the fallout fades away quickly. No, this is not supposed to be some allegory about maturity. Ted is a comedy, and while he makes you double over in laughter, MacFarlane tries to tweak your heartstrings as well.
In the end, it all comes down to consistency. Unlike Family Guy, which can be incredibly hit or miss, humor wise, Ted is funny without fail. Even when you groan at some of the obvious double entendres, you still find yourself snickering at the subtext. For all his many talents - singer, voice artists, social humorists - Seth MacFarlane’s legacy will be built upon his cast of comic character. For a while, it looked like all we’d have to work with are the Griffins, the Browns, and the Smiths. We can now add a harried Boston man-boy and his foul mouthed bear to the list. His TV work may be more popular, but Ted reveals a side of MacFarlane guaranteed to keep his crazy/creepy kind of wit around for a long time to come. It’s hilarious.