With a host of high profile animated TV comedies under his belt – Family Guy, The Cleveland Show and American Dad! – Seth MacFarlane has now also become the latest adult animator to make the transition to feature-length filmmaking. South Park’s Trey Parker started the trend with Cannibal! The Musical, Matt Groening’s The Simpsons Movie followed suit, and Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill creator Mike Judge now has three live-action features to his name.
MacFarlane’s Ted is the story of a triangular love affair between 35-year-old John (Wahlberg), his acerbic, potty-mouthed talking bear Ted (voiced by Macfarlane himself), and John’s long-suffering girlfriend Lori, played by Mila Kunis of Black Swan fame. A tale of Peter Pan-esque protracted male adolescence and ‘bro-versus-ho’ ethics – the subjects of seemingly every American screen comedy of the 21st century – this is a film that squarely relies on the comic potential of random flotsam and jetsam pop culture, tongue-in-cheek offensiveness and state-of-the-art foul-mouthed puppet humour. As with much of MacFarlane’s work, it is devoid of any trace of sophistication or finesse, and is fitfully amusing thanks only to the occasional deadpan shock-value jokes offered by Mark Wahlberg’s crooked straight-man performance.
The silliness begins in Boston in the 1980s, as eight-year-old John Bennett wishes on a star for his teddy bear to come to life, and miraculously finds that his wish has been granted. Fast-forward 27 years, and John is still living with his animated bear in an elongated adolescent bachelorhood. Following a rollercoaster ride of fleeting fame and then public rejection, Ted has become a jaded, lazy layabout of a bear with a penchant for pot and prostitutes, all of which makes John’s girlfriend eager to see the bear ditched for her particular brand of stuffiness. She delivers an ultimatum to John that forces Ted to find a place of his own and take a job in a supermarket. What follows is a series of highly inane plotlines whereby John predictably makes a mess of his relationship, the bear tries to reunite the pair but gets kidnapped, and this particular reviewer finds himself wishing he were an inanimate object with eyes made of glass, foam stuffed in his ears and a mouth firmly sewn up so as to avoid seeing, hearing or speaking of how this evil might end.
MacFarlane has thus principally used the licence afforded by caricature and cartoon to satisfy his penchant for triviality and vulgarity, and despite his huge success with audiences, or perhaps because of it, he has never managed to garnish the level of critical consideration of Parker, Groening or Matt Stone, precisely because he is not a dedicated satirist. He is instead the quintessential, much-endeared and comforting class clown, and as such he has tapped into the American psyche in much the same way as a well-worn and much-loved teddy bear might do. He relates to pop culture with an unashamed lack of criticism, studding his work with non-sequitur references, relying time and time again on punchlines in which the reference is the sum total of the joke, and thus gratifying the viewer for sharing his nerdy, smirking, Generation X insider knowledge.
There are saving graces here though, not least with regards to the depiction of the fickle nature of fame, the desire to cling to adolescence and the film’s unilateral and unswerving irreverence to pop culture and cuddly loutishness, but until MacFarlane sheds his security blanket and his smug, self-congratulatory attitude, he will remain a bear without a bite.
Dir: Seth MacFarlane;
US comedy, 2012, 106 mins;
Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Seth MacFarlane, Joel McHale, Giovanni Ribisi
Premieres September 6