Seth MacFarlane’s comedy is usually sort of a mixed bag for me. “Family Guy,” though it began with big promise, has become considerably lazier, meaner and more overrated by audiences in recent years. “American Dad” offers a slightly more tangible sense of humor, but not quite brilliant. And “The Cleveland Show,” starring the former secondary character in “Family Guy,” seems like the most unnecessary television spinoff since Disney’s “TaleSpin,” which featured Baloo the bear from “The Jungle Book” as a daring air pilot.
But despite my overall objections and criticisms toward his work, I recognize that when MacFarlane is in his element, he is both a very funny man and also a very intelligent man. He has a unique brand of comedy, intersecting low-brow antics, family dysfunction, cheerful political incorrectness, and below-the-belt insult comedy directed at popular culture. There isn’t anything else like it on television, despite what “South Park” naysayers will tell you.
And make no mistake, Seth MacFarlane’s first live-action feature film “Ted” has his likeness scribbled all over it, from the vitriolic humor palate to the jazzy musical score to the blue title cards that are a distinctive hallmark of “Family Guy.” Even the character types don’t stray too far outside MacFarlane’s comfort zone: the pairing of Mark Wahlberg and Ted might as well be a perpetually stoned variation of Peter Griffin and Brian.
And yet, I sorta enjoyed “Ted” for what it was: both an enjoyable buddy comedy and a fresh take on the prominent comedic subgenre of the Arrested Development Manchild Movie. Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler debatably “specialize” in this genre, but MacFarlane is a few steps ahead of his stumbling contemporaries. It’s difficult to explain why exactly, but MacFarlane’s comic sensibilities seem better suited to the demands of live-action entertainment. His jokes here show more restraint and control, whereas the jokes in “Family Guy” are rarely ever germane to the plot. I can’t say he’s a groundbreaking new talent in the business of film comedy, but his first outing ain’t half bad. Maybe he should pursue big projects like this more often.
Narrator Patrick Stewart introduces us to little Johnny Bennett, a kid growing up just outside of Boston who is not in good spirit. He has trouble making friends with those on his block. He’s not even weakling enough for them to pound on. But one Christmas day, he receives a child-sized teddy from his parents and instantly becomes attached. So attached that he actually wishes his favorite toy were a real friend. The next morning, Ted is a walking, talking, and impossibly adorable companion. You should see how Johnny’s parents initially react.
Flash-forward to current day. Johnny…er, John (Wahlberg) is now a 35-year-old working at a rental car firm and is going steady with Lori (Mila Kunis), his girlfriend of four years. Ted (voice of Seth MacFarlane) is a pot-smoking, foul-mouthed former celebrity who still hangs with his life-long “thunder buddy.” The teddy bear made national news all those years ago, making him a media icon and earning him a spot on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. But just like any Flavor of the Week, it’s not too long before the world forgets all about the one-time anomaly known as Ted.
Lori wants commitment, but figures she will never get anything like that from John unless something is done about Ted. Ted is like John’s enabler, leading him into all sorts of shenanigans that hold him back. In all sorts of movies, we see characters that refuse to integrate themselves into the adult world and shirk the responsibilities expected of them, but rarely do we see an allegory as vivid or on-the-nose as a literal teddy bear representing the essence of John’s youth.
John is a guy who has always adhered to the motto “bros before hoes,” but he’s gotta get it together if he wants to keep his lady and advance beyond his current slacker state. This and Ted’s vulgar brashness as a stuffed plaything are really the only two prominent jokes the film has to offer. But the film finds a way to make them work in a number of different scenarios, as when Ted uses colorful vocabulary to blow a job interview, or when he persuades John to clock out of work to watch the telling commentaries on the latest “Cheers” DVD set.
The character of Ted is Seth MacFarlane’s way of saying and doing the things that nobody (other than maybe Sacha Baron Cohen) has the cojones to utter aloud. MacFarlane also did the motion capture for Ted’s movements, which look seamlessly humanoid. Mark Wahlberg also does surprisingly strong work, while Mila Kunis gives a sympathetic and agreeable edge to a character that could have simply been written as a nagging shrew if screenwriting duties were placed in the wrong hands. Supporting roles include Joel McHale as Lori’s lustful boss, and Giovanni Ribisi as Ted’s weasel of a stalker.
“Ted” does not peak too early, though the big third-act climax is outdone by the comedic crescendo of the second act, featuring Sam J. Jones as himself, riding solely on his star status as 80s science fiction hero Flash Gordon. Though while I personally love this particular arc, I wonder how many people my age (eighteen, practically the target demographic) will even understand the brilliance of the reference. Probably few.
Also in this section is yet another surprise cameo by somebody really special. I won’t reveal who it is, but the crowd certainly didn’t expect it. And the funniest part about the appearance is that it’s completely subdued: no attention is brought to the person’s presence, there’s no reason for them to be there, and best of all, they aren’t even given any lines of dialogue to speak. A great WTF moment if ever there was one.