High concept movies like Ted can be a shakey proposition at the best of times but Seth McFarlane delivers the goods in spades with a surprisingly hilarious and sometimes heart felt film.
Ted starts of in typical fairy tale fashion finding a young boy, John Bennett, who has no friends making a Christmas wish that his new teddy bear would come to life and be his best friend. He wakes up the next morning to find that his wish has come true, his bear is alive and his parents freak out. The credits sequence shows bits and pieces of the years as they go by alternating with Ted being a celebrity and he and John growing up together. The movie picks up with John (Mark Wahlberg) being an adult and four years into a serious relationship with Lori (Mila Kunis) who is starting to get fed up with John’s shirking of responsibilities with his magic teddy bear (McFarlane voicing and providing the motion capture performance). What ensues is a comedy that is cobbled together with romantic comedy/80′s kid movie cliches that are then skewered by the sharp script and top notch performances.
Seth McFarlane, known primarily for long running animated series Family Guy, is a bit tricky. He is a very smart man who has fallen into a bit of a rut on his show by utilizing a formula that stopped being funny quite some time ago. The first three seasons of Family Guy were pretty awesome with a hardcore edge to it that showed a lack of fear about who was being skewered and dealing in pop culture references that were fairly obscure without worrying too much about whether or not the audience would get them. Then the show was cancelled and subsequently resurrected years later and when it came back it just wasn’t the same. Because of this I found myself wondering which McFarlane was going to show up here given that he wrote, directed and starred in the movie. Thankfully it was the first three seasons McFarlane that showed up and the movie is hilarious.
As mentioned above, Ted is a very on point skewering of romantic comedies and 80′s kids movies. The script goes through all the right motions with the relationship being in trouble, the boss at the girl’s work being there to swoop in when the male lead eventually blows it, and the big gesture attempt to win the girl back, It also throws in all the stuff you get from the magic buddy movies where the kid finds an alien/monster/magic toy to be friends with and has to contend with the forces of evil, or at least selfishness, to keep his buddy safe. It doesn’t necessarily sound like mashing these two up would be effective but when you apply a liberal does of off sides, profanity laden humor and mix it with on point pop culture references and a heaping tea spoon of genuine emotional heart and then top the whole thing off with surprising resolutions to cliches and fake outs and you have a tasty stew that will leave you wanting more.
I don’t want to oversell this but this might be McFarlane at his most effective. He doesn’t fall back into his Family Guy formula of flashback comedy with ‘hey remember that time when…’ and then they flashback to something that has no bearing on the overall plot and hits you with silliness and the movie is much, much better for it. There are some flashbacks here and there but they are always relevant to the story and very funny. Further, the tone here is just right and the emotional moments work without overdoing things. The characters are drawn well enough that you understand where everyone is coming from rather than having them just fall into genre stereotypes.
Another thing I feel really worked with the formula is the conceit that everyone knows about Ted and no one questions a magic teddy bear’s existence. Since he has been around a long time he has become old news and no one really cares anymore aside from the odd autograph seeker. This frees the story to just focus on relationships instead of bogging down with some kind of ‘keep the magic bear hidden’ sub-plot. Even when the ‘creepy guy kidnaps the magic buddy for his deranged kid’ sub-plot comes along, it is done in such a peripheral way that it doesn’t really distract too much and plays out differently than similar plot lines often do.
The abject lack of fear in skewering celebrities was also fun as the movie takes swipes at everyone. This goes a little further with racial and sexual humor as well which is even handed enough to keep it from being offensive. There are some who may take offense but if they do it will be through a misunderstanding of the point that just because a character in a movie says something it doesn’t mean they are right nor does it mean that the writer endorses that view point. Sometimes the joke is THAT it is racist as opposed to the humor being derived from the racism itself. One scene here when John and Ted are discussing a restaurant they want to open addresses this specifically. There is a lot of lamp shade hanging and direct acknowledgement of criticisms about the movie that work because they are cleverly constructed and executed and relieve a bit of tension if the suspension of disbelief is being challenged.
The effects in Ted are also very good and it is pretty easy to forget that he is a CGI bear because he really seems to take up space in the environment and seems to have real substance. The CGI here reminded me of that of Paul which was also very well done and felt like there was weight to the character although I feel like it was better here. It is a pretty impressive feat to make the audience forget that they are watching a CGI teddy bear as opposed to an actual talking stuffed animal but here it is. The use of practical bears for stand ins probably helped this out quite a bit.
The performances here are universally excellent. Once again Wahlberg knocks it out of the park again making me wish he would do more comedy. Mila Kunis is excellent as always in a fairly straight forward role that she manages to make interesting. Joel McHale is perfect as the narcissistic boss who wants to steal Lori away from John and McFarlane does an excellent job of the motion performance and his voice work is good. There are a lot of people who claim he is just doing his Peter Griffin voice but I don’t hear it that way. It sounds much closer to McFarlane’s real voice which is itself essentially Brian’s voice on Family Guy. I find this complaint sort of weird as I just don’t hear it.
The movie has a ton of awesome supporting performances and cameos from everyone from Patrick Warburton to Flash Gordon himself Sam Jones. Matt Walsh also provides a sturdy supporting performance in a character that isn’t far removed from his typical schtick but is effective nonetheless. Giovanni Ribisi turns a character that should have been an annoying waste of time in to a real treat as the kidnapper who is obsessed with Ted.
Conclusion [9.0 out of 10]
Ted is not going to be for everyone. If you aren’t big on pop culture references, drug jokes or profane humor then this is not the movie for you. Likewise if you absolutely hate McFarlane’s comedy there isn’t a lot that will change your mind here. If you are a fan of the first three seasons of the Family Guy or just raunchy send ups in general then there is a lot to love here. There is a little bit of meandering and loss of focus here but nothing that derails the movie at all. Ted may very well be this years great summer comedy.