Let’s say you’re not a fan of a certain primetime animated series with a reputation for visual asides, prolonged pop-culture references and a wearing out a joke’s welcome.
Okay, I am that person. I don’t particularly care for Family Guy, so I went into Universal Pictures’ Ted with some trepidation, expecting the show’s creator Seth MacFarlane to exhibit many of those tics, and rely on many of those crutches, in his feature directorial debut. And, wouldn’t you know it, they’re all there: From the cuddly character speaking like an adult to the obsessive fascination with aspects of popular culture, Ted lays bare all of the usual MacFarlane tropes — but for some magical reason, it all works.
The film tells the story of immature thirtysomething John (played by Mark Wahlberg) who, as a boy, made a wish for a best friend who would never leave him. In response, his new teddy bear comes to life, and they agree to never stop being friends. Now older, John and Ted (MacFarlane) still live together, much to their own amusement and that of John’s girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) — although hers is waning. Now John must decide whether he’s ready to grow up and let Ted move out on his own.
While lesser films might’ve dwelled on John’s attempts to hide his talking stuffed bear and his first meeting with Lori, Ted quickly does away with those events in the credit sequence: We’re treated to glimpses of Ted’s brush with fame as the world accepts that he is, in fact, a magical living teddy bear. We also see photos of John and Lori’s early relationship. It’s almost as if we’re watching the end credits of the Ted’s previous adventure, complete with footage from 1980s news programs and the Johnny Carson Tonight Show that goes a long way in selling the existence of a talking bear.
It’s one of the film’s strengths that the audience never really questions the bear as a story point. Credit goes to MacFarlane’s visual-effects people, because Ted is pretty seamless (pardon the pun), a physical presence whether he’s fighting with Wahlberg, having a heart to heart with Kunis or pleasuring his grocery store co-worker.
It takes a special sort of talent to make all of that work, and while I never suspected MacFarlane to possess the necessary skills, I have to concede he has the magic … because he actually made me laugh at a shit joke. Without getting into specifics, it’s a joke about shit as opposed to a joke about shitting, which makes all the difference in the world. It also serves as the film’s first Family Guy-style flashback, and highlights the genuine comic talents of Wahlberg and Kunis.
While they’ve proved to be fine performers in more dramatic material, the stars are both at home in Ted, and that comfort level makes the characters more engaging. I know that seems crazy for a comedy, but stick with me: Because we’re introduced to their characters four years into their relationship, the actors have little time to establish that sort of connection. However, they do it effectively enough that Lori’s growing concern about John’s lack of maturity in the face of her love for his boyish qualities comes off as completely valid. Their rapport also sells things as varied as their reactions to the shit in the aforementioned joke, a flashback to their first encounter on a dance floor, and the moment their relationship appears to unravel.
And to completely skip tracks, I have to say it’s impossible for me to hate characters that love 1980’s Flash Gordon as much as Ted and John do. It’s a running gag and becomes something of a totem for their friendship. Selections from Queen’s soundtrack play at appropriate moments, and it;s the subject of one of the Family Guy-style extended reference sequences. Perhaps it comes down to my own affection for the source material, but it’s a referential aside that worked for me.
The comedy also works because it varies in style and tempo. The shit joke I keep mentioning is one of two or three gross-out gags. Flash Gordon is one of two extended reference jokes (the other, which I won’t spoil, was such a spot-on recreation of the scene being referenced that it may have been my biggest laugh in the whole movie). From there, you get simple wordplay, situational humor, a little racial humor, and MacFarlane’s patented rapid-fire pop-reference verbal tic. Few scenes ever rely too heavily on any one type of joke, and in any given sequence, you can easily find yourself puzzled as to why one gag might make someone laugh only to feel the next one hit you squarely on the jaw.
All in all, it amazes me that I enjoyed Ted because so much of it is made of elements I despise in Family Guy. I suppose the difference is the constraints of live action: Facing the realities of production, MacFarlane’s usual frantic comedy pace slows way down — granted, MacFarlane’s performance as Ted is still pretty fast — allowing a certain reality to permeate the film. It helps to sell the characters, situations and laughs. Ted is the sort of summer film we should see more of: a grounded comedy with a fresh, crazy central idea in which all of the people involved play to their strengths – yes, even the creator of Family Guy.
Ted opens Friday nationwide.