I’m not a fan of Family Guy. It has its moments, sure, but overall it reminds me too often of the ADHD kid at the back of the classroom, desperately trying to get your attention and disrupting the lesson. It tries so damned hard to be funny, bless it, but the trying is sometimes too much. With that in mind, my anticipation for Ted – Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane’s big summer comedy hopeful – was middling. For one reason or another I hadn’t seen a trailer, only adverts on bus sides and the backs of magazines. However the excited whispers of others had not been entirely out of earshot. Factor in also my pre-existing suspicion of Hollywood’s summer ‘comedies’ and you can colour me jaded from the start.
The good news up front then; I was thoroughly charmed. Ted opens guns-blazing with a smart narration from Patrick Stewart that quickly and economically brings us up to speed on the premise – young boy wishes his teddy bear would come to life and it does – and then a splendid opening titles montage races us through 20-odd years to present day; man and bear getting blazed on the sofa.
The man, John Bennett, is played by Mark Wahlberg, on finer form in a comedy than he was last time I laid eyes on him in the decidedly hit-and-miss The Other Guys. Wahlberg has shown he has the chops for comedy before. He was the best thing about David O Russell’s existential carnival I Heart Huckabees. Here he necessarily plays second fiddle to a CG bear, yet at the same time manages to be a little more than just the straight man. Bennett is flawed, easily swayed into acting like a man-child by his lifelong buddy Ted (voiced by MacFarlane), much to the exasperation of his smart, successful girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis). Ultimately John finds himself with a difficult choice – keep up his amiable slacker routine with Ted, or commit to a grown-up relationship with Lori. Tough call.
If the best-friend-or-the girl set-up sounds a little uninspired, then well spotted. Good one, you. Yeah, it’s a staple of the buddy movie. A dilemma played out comfortably for audiences time and time again. Yet with Ted MacFarlane has twisted it into something delightfully comic, decidedly adult-orientated, yet wholly aimed at the masses. The humour in Ted is frequently blue, quite often barbed and dark, however the shocks of some of the particularly un-PC jokes is softened by the comfortingly familiar set-up. Even if a talking bear isn’t your idea of ‘normal’.
I was afraid that Ted would play out like a broad version of Jodie Foster’s uneven The Beaver, sitting somewhere between uncomfortable melodrama and one-joke farce. Fortunately, MacFarlane is more interested in entertaining. Several Spielberg classics are directly referenced throughout Ted, and whilst this is hardly appropriate family viewing, in a sense, the spirit of Spielberg’s communal cinema exists in this movie. It is in no way suitable for children, but the sense of a fun adventure unfurling with well-rounded characters and a reliable element of risk recalls the same good-hearted fun that made so many summer movies of yesteryear as durable as they are. Ted feels like it’ll become a classic in the same vein.
That element of risk comes in the form of Giovanni Ribisi, ever reliable to play the weirdo. Here, as one of Ted’s biggest fans (Ted was briefly famous – a neat way of allowing everyone in the movie in on his magical existence), Ribisi unfurls from shadowy loser to Buffalo Bill-style maniac. It’s a slight part, but one he clearly enjoys. In fact everyone involved gets their time to shine in one way or another. Kunis aptly avoids turning Lori into a joyless career woman. Even Joel McHale’s creepy-boss character works. What seems clear is that the people making this movie are enjoying themselves. It’s infectious.
And special mention must also go to the effects department. I’m cautious of CG or motion-capture characters, but Ted is the most convincing one I think I’ve ever seen. Beautifully detailed, you buy it immediately and never again question the reality of what’s happening.
So it’s pretty much a success story all round, I’m glad to be able to report. Though there’re one or two little niggles and warnings to cover. In the first half especially the emphasis on stoner humour may grow tiresome for some, like we’re watching some novelty double act go through Cheech n Chong routines. And if you’re averse to toilet humour (or out-of-the-toilet humour) then really this isn’t the film for you. Also, as engaging and enjoyable as Ted is, one wonders if MacFarlane might’ve perhaps dared to ‘dream a little bigger, darling’. A finale at Fenway Park feels less of a big finish than the film maybe deserves, especially after some neatly inventive moments along the way (including hands down the year’s best fight scene. Seriously. No contest).
But these sour grapes are small and easily swallowed. The good definitely trumps the bad here, and then some. And if you’re of a certain age there is going to be some rapturous joy at one of the film’s significant cameos that raises the bar in the middle section. The summer is usually the playground of god-awful animations, brainless action movies and insipid rom-coms. This year we get Ted. Nice going, this year.