I have never been a fan of Seth MacFarlane or Family Guy, but when I saw the trailer for his debut film Ted, I thought, “This will either be brilliant or really stupid.” Now I’ve seen the movie, and it’s pretty much brilliant.
The premise is ingeniously simple, grafting the story of The Velveteen Rabbit onto a buddy stoner comedy. In a prologue set in 1985, 8-year-old John (Bretton Manley) receives a teddy bear for Christmas, names it Teddy, and loves it so much that he wishes the bear were alive. He wakes the next morning to find his wish come true, and Teddy (voiced by Zane Cowans) promises to be his best friend forever. In the present day, John (Mark Wahlberg) has a dream girlfriend in Lori (Mila Kunis), a gorgeous PR executive who doesn’t mind John’s lack of ambition or his dead-end job at a car rental agency. The trouble is that John is still living with Ted (voiced by MacFarlane), who looks no different than he did 27 years ago but has now aged into a horny bachelor and washed-up media celebrity whose hard-partying ways don’t fit with John’s settled new life. John realizes that if he and Lori are ever going to be happy, Ted’s going to have to move out. Being on his own won’t be easy for a 2-foot-tall stuffed bear without job skills or fingers.
John’s unwillingness to let go of his childhood takes hilariously tangible form in Ted, whose cute appearance cuts against his raunchy nature. He hits on attractive women in all sorts of disgusting ways and gets away with it because the women look at Ted and go, “Awww.” As a voice actor, MacFarlane gives Ted a Boston-accented spin on his Peter Griffin voice, as Ted himself points out. As a director, MacFarlane’s animation background helps him render the teddy bear so that you never doubt for a second that Ted is a living being interacting with the people around him. This keys a deliriously funny sequence late in the film when John and Ted’s differences lead to a fistfight, with the plush bear somehow giving as much punishment as he takes.
That scene owes as much to Wahlberg as to the animation. The lead actors do much more than react to the teddy bear the same as they would to a human actor. Kunis squeezes way more out of her clichéd role than she really should, but the proceedings belong firmly to Wahlberg, who does some of the best acting of his career here. Comedy seems to uncork a wilder and more charming side of this actor, and Wahlberg isn’t afraid to go all goofball in scenes like the flashback when he pulls some bad dance moves trying to impress a girl. He’s similarly unrestrained in the later scenes when John thinks he’s lost Lori. Even so, that fight sequence alone should give Wahlberg his proper due as a comic actor.
The script is by MacFarlane and two fellow Family Guy writers, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. They’re tasked with telling a story longer than 100 minutes, but as you might expect with their sitcom experience, they tend to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. So we get Patrick Stewart as a plummy offscreen narrator who runs off on tangents about Apache helicopters and Superman Returns. Not everything works: the fart jokes; the running gag with Ted insulting his grocery store boss (Bill Smitrovich) and getting promoted for it; at least some of the pop-culture references, which will probably be stale in a few years. The ending is full of holes, too.
Yet for each gag that misfires there’s more than one that hits, like when John meets his childhood idol, Sam J. Jones, the star of the 1980 movie version of Flash Gordon. (Jones portrays himself as a party monster who introduces John and Ted to cocaine, which gives rise to a great wild party scene.) Another inspired touch is the bad guy –– a crazed celebrity stalker (Giovanni Ribisi) who’s hellbent on giving his son a talking teddy bear. Plus we get sparkling banter about the names of marijuana strains and a scene when Ted challenges John to come up with white-trash names for girls. (John rattles off a frighteningly long list.) The material is strong enough that the movie would still more or less work if Ted were a person.
This is usually the part of the review where I say what a strong start this is for a first-time filmmaker and that I can’t wait for the next thing he does. In this case, though, I actually hope MacFarlane stays away from movies until he gets another idea as good as this one. If it takes him 10 years, that’s fine. I’d bet, though, that he comes up with something much sooner than that.
Starring Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis. Voice by Seth MacFarlane. Directed by Seth MacFarlane. Written by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, and Wellesley Wild. Rated R.