Seth McFarlane’s live-action feature film debut, Ted, has at least one good thing going for it: It’s better than Family Guy. I’ve never understood the wild popularity of that stale and exhausted Simpsons knock-off. Although, its ubiquitous animator and creator, who at one point had three programs running back-to-back on Fox’s Sunday Night Animation Domination (Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show), is pretty well-suited for a single, solitary time slot. He’s really a one-idea kind of artist. Family Guy was never consistently clever enough to maintain its required airtime. That’s not to say that Stewey, the brilliant Bond Villain baby, and Brian, the dog who’s ten times smarter than his owner, weren’t good ideas in the first place. They were great ideas.
Ted, the raunchy and hilarious, R-rated fairy tale about a boy whose Teddy Bear comes to life one magical day and proceeds to grow up alongside him, is another inspired concept. As the boy, John, becomes an adult (at least physically), Teddy becomes Ted, a vulgar and immature slacker who spends his days smoking weed and his nights partying with hookers. Ted is, in essence, a reflection of John’s arrested development, his refusal to put away childhood and become a grown up. The central premise is so obviously good it’s hard to believe someone hadn’t already thought of it. What would have made for an absolutely tremendous animated or live-action short film is here stretched out to over 90 minutes and, miraculously, the movie doesn’t rip its stitching—although it comes awfully close.
Now 35-years-old, John (Mark Wahlberg) is a well-meaning goof and rental car employee with a gorgeous girlfriend (Mila Kunis) who’s sick of sharing her man with his boorish stuffed (party) animal. Ted is voiced by McFarlane himself—a gifted vocalist who, admittedly, finesses a comedic line so superbly that nearly everything Ted has to say comes out barbed and penetrates right to the funny bone. The plot involves John trying to mediate the two poles tugging on him: the girl dragging him kicking and screaming into a responsible relationship and Ted, who’s still the security blanket for this frightened man-child. At some point, Giovanni Ribisi enters the picture as a creepy Teddy Bear stalker straight from Silence of The Lambs. That superfluous plot point provides the action necessary to propel the movie to its feature length goal, but adds little else.
Made in the same pop-culture savvy style that Matt Groening invented and McFarlane later adopted for his animated sitcoms, Ted gushes over Star Wars and Flash Gordon while jabbing at such easy pickings as Jack And Jill and Taylor Lautner. One of McFarlane’s trademarks is his unearned flippancy: he loves to rip on zeitgeist fads without having the intelligence to send them up in any insightful way. Like South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, McFarlane sits on an ivory tower chanting “Everyone’s Stupid But Me”. Unlike the South Park duo, McFarlane puts nothing up, never pushing boundaries or provoking people to rethink their own ideologies or obsessions. That same hypocrisy exists ever so slightly in Ted, but, for the most part, McFarlane is working more from Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith’s handbook for jejune but teary-eyed modern comedies.
As the classic story of a boy, his best friend, and the girl that comes between them, Ted mostly works, because the script (written by McFarlane) mixes puerility and scatological humor—its so dense in dick, feces and sex jokes that all you can do is give in to the immaturity and laugh—with shards of wisdom and heart. Ted’s annoyingly cutesy “I Love You” audio function has remained inside his stuffing over the years. If it gets touched, an adorably childlike voice giggles that most unmanly phrase, and when inconveniently toggled during a poignant moment of male bonding between Ted and John, it perfectly sums up everything the two boys feel but can no longer say to one another. It’s those sorts of heavenly messages that exist organically throughout Ted. If only McFarlane had done more with them. Too often it seems he’s just trying to please his Family Guy faithful, but in all honestly, it’s probably time he outgrow them.