Review: “Ted”

A scene from Seth MacFarlane's "Ted"“Ted” is the first attempt at live-action filmmaking from Seth MacFarlane, creator of the adult-oriented cartoons “Family Guy” and “American Dad,” and it proves that his efforts should remain relegated to the boob-tube and off the silver-screen. Like MacFarlane’s television shows, “Ted” excels at making irreverent cultural references and observations, which fly fast and furious at the viewer, who is doing a good job if they comprehend half of them. But that’s just the problem with the movie. Unlike a 22-minute TV episode, “Ted” requires MacFarlane to do more than just throw random jokes at the viewer, like develop characters and pace a narrative arc — two areas in which he is sorely lacking competence.

If not for all the foul-mouthed language and sexual sight gags rendering the material inappropriate for television, “Ted” would have better lent itself to the episodic sitcom format, anyway. It’s the tale of slacker Bostonian John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), who at eight years old wished for his teddy bear to come to life so that he could have a best friend. This wish magically became a reality and, nearly 30 years later, the appropriately named Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) is still by John’s side, sharing his adult proclivities for four-letter words and marijuana bong-hits.

The premise is inspired, but because of his inexperience in feature filmmaking, MacFarlane takes “Ted” in entirely safe, conventional directions. A more assured writer/director might have found real depth in the idea of a grown man bonding with a talking teddy bear by taking a surrealist approach, but MacFarlane transplants the high-concept into a narrative that moviegoers have seen hundreds of times before. The plot focuses on John’s relationship with his girlfriend of four years, Lori (Mila Kunis), who loves him dearly but can’t help but view their relationship as an uncomfortable menage a trois. Lori can’t stand that Ted consumes an inordinate amount of John’s life–they smoke pot and engage in endless viewings of “Flash Gordon” together–so she gives John an ultimatum: either the teddy bear moves out or she does. The usual bros-and-hoes themes, which find John conflicted as he tries to both get the girl and maintain his treasured friendship, ensue.

In its employment of conventional narrative mechanizations, which MacFarlane clearly thought necessary to sustain a feature length, “Ted” effectively becomes just another Hollywood romantic-comedy (albeit a raunchy one), draining the gleeful existentialism from its premise. This proves especially problematic because MacFarlane doesn’t actually consider the movie a rom-com, concentrating entirely on whether the jokes are funny, not whether the storytelling works. For instance, John is a complete loser without any real prospects — a fitting profile for a sitcom character, but not for a rom-com protagonist who the viewer is supposed to root for. In addition, MacFarlane doesn’t understand how to move from one plot-point to the next; there are more establishing shots in “Ted” than any other 100-minute movie I’ve ever seen. Thus, the director’s efforts to force an obligatory narrative on his material prove self-defeating because said narrative doesn’t achieve the senses of tension and cohesion that it’s meant to.

That all said, the movie is not a failure on every technical level. For one, the animation of Ted is exquisite; even though he doesn’t have human eyes, his emotions translate well. The audience accepts Ted as a character rather than a gimmick from the get-go, which is a testament to the animators’ creative abilities and MacFarlane’s spirited voice-work. Furthermore, the film looks great on the whole, somewhat surprisingly given the crudeness of MacFarlane’s television animation. No doubt veteran cinematographer Michael Barrett was a huge help. And thirdly, the film contains a truly well-done action finale, tightly paced and soundly constructed, unlike nearly every other sequence.

It is slightly irresponsible that I have gone this entire review without clearly indicating whether “Ted” is funny or not. The short answer is yes, for the most part. MacFarlane knows how to write a joke and most of the performances (especially Giovanni Ribisi as a creepy villain) are spot-on. But the same jokes could have packed a much stronger punch–and, in turn, been more memorable–had the movie been better constructed on the whole. Had the high-budget animation and the profane content not been obstacles, I have no doubt that MacFarlane could have made a great television series out of this idea. As it is, “Ted” is a mildly amusing but significantly flawed piece of work from a man who is very apparently a first-time filmmaker.