Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Ted

For F*** Magazine, Singapore


Movie Review                                                                                                                                                      29/8/12
TED
2012

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Seth MacFarlane (voice), Giovanni Ribisi
Directed by: Seth MacFarlane

            Almost everyone has that little piece of childhood they remember bringing everywhere, be it a blanket, a Barbie doll, a G.I. JOE or, of course, a teddy bear. And many of us would have held imaginary intergalactic space battles enacted with action figures or fantasy tea parties with dolls and stuffed animals; entertaining the thought of these inanimate companions coming to life. There have been many films and TV shows about living toys, from the Toy Story franchise to Small Soldiers to the infamous Twilight Zone episode (we won’t spoil which one)– well, Ted runs on the premise of the magical living toy accompanying its owner into adulthood.

                Mark Wahlberg plays John Bennett, something of an outcast among the neighbourhood kids as a child growing up in a Boston suburb. Yearning for a true friend, he wishes on a shooting star for his Christmas present, a teddy bear, to come to life – which it does. The mysterious walking, talking stuffed toy captures the imagination of the world, becoming an overnight celebrity. As the buzz dies down, the bear, christened “Ted” (voice and motion capture performance by MacFarlane), settles into a routine living alongside his best bud John, the two inseparable after 27 years of friendship. As John grows up, so does Ted, the stuffed toy developing a penchant for marijuana and a libido he struggles to keep in check.

                However, Ted’s antics seem to be coming in the way of John’s relationship with his girlfriend of four years Lori (Kunis), who has happily put up with the rambunctious bear but feels that it would be hard for her to live with a guy whose whole life revolves around a stuffed toy. Her sleazy boss Rex (Joel McHale) hits on her relentlessly, wondering why Lori would choose a slacker like John over a wealthy and successful man like himself. Meanwhile, disturbed stalker Donny (Ribisi), who has been obsessed with Ted ever since the stuffed toy hit the big time, is intent on getting a hold of the enchanted bear for his son (Aedin Mincks) - by any means necessary. John must come to grips with living life as a responsible adult while still preserving the memories he formed with Ted, as circumstances push him to get his priorities in order. 

                 Ted is the live-action directorial debut of Seth MacFarlane, the multi-hyphenate behind the successful animated series Family Guy. The film was also co-written and co-produced by MacFarlane in addition to featuring his vocal and motion-capture performances, and has his fingerprints all over it. In the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer must say that he’s not much of a Seth MacFarlane fan – the guy can seem obnoxious and “funnier-than-thou” at times, and has come under fire for alleged plagiarism – indeed, cartoonist Lucas Turnbloom has claimed that Ted liberally rips off his webcomic Imagine THIS. However, even though many of the jokes here are in the same irreverent, pop culture-referencing mould as in Family Guy and its spin-offs, they are very effective. This is a very funny movie, and some of the gags are true gems. The tone is established from the get-go, as the camera flies past the letters of the “Universal Studios” logo and into the globe, zooming in on the little suburb. Patrick Stewart provides a warm, fuzzy, curl-up-by-the-fireplace narration to set the story up – and immediately makes an anti-Semitic remark. Later in the same narration, he makes and out-of-left-field comment about Apache helicopters.

                This is one of those movies where you don’t want to hear too much about the jokes beforehand because some are just too enjoyable to spoil. Of course several gags are straining too hard, but this isn’t blankly “unfunny”, as many often accuse MacFarlane of being. He engineers some situations (with help from some fun celebrity cameos) that are truly ripe for comedy. There’s talk of singer Norah Jones’ sexual encounter with the titular stuffed toy. Flash Gordon and a homosexual Hal Jordan in the same room. A brutal hotel room brawl between John and his beloved bear (it involves broken bottles and Ted appropriating a radio antenna as a whip). We could go on – these scenarios come flying one after the other and it’s quite the ride.

                One problem though is that many of these jokes can seem rather mean-spirited, even if there’s a grain of truth in them. MacFarlane gleefully takes the mickey out of everyone from Justin Bieber to Brandon Routh, from Chris Brown to Lance Armstrong, races and religions of all stripes – and some of it just isn’t all that pleasant. However, the movie is wholly successful in getting its audience to believe that a bear can walk, talk and smoke a bong, just as the Superman movie made us believe a man could fly. A combination of puppets, animatronics and a CGI bear created using MacFarlane’s voice and motion capture work brings Ted to vivid life, all tied together with that distinct New England twang. Ted can eat and drink, get high on narcotics and apparently perform coitus – how all of this is possible is never quite explained, but we go along with the ‘magic’. It’s actually pretty hard not to get emotionally invested in Ted, for all his idiosyncrasies, and it is to the filmmakers’ credit that we wince and cringe when Ted gets “injured” or put in any kind of jeopardy, and never say “wait a minute, that’s not a real thing”.

                Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis are a fair bit better here than they were as Max Payne and Mona Sax respectively in the awful Max Payne film, and they gamely overcome the challenge of acting opposite ‘nothing’. Giovanni Ribisi, who was also the antagonist opposite Wahlberg in Contraband, is fantastically creepy as Donny and gives off quite the serial killer vibe. It’s a shame that his subplot gets the short shrift, the bulk of it squeezed breathlessly into the film’s final act. That’s also easily the best part of the film because we get on with the plot – fun as it may be to see John and Ted hang around and go wild, the film does spend too much time setting it all up and not enough on the action proper.

                Ted is surprising in how it worms its way into your heart, how a convincingly-created character allows us to lower our guard and feel free to laugh. If we as audience members cannot suspend our disbelief then it’s all out the window, and some effort has gone into keeping that disbelief safely suspended. It’s unfortunate that the film is sometimes content with a string of gags in place of full focus on the plot, and the sincerity oftentimes get easily lost in the shuffle of bawdy humour and MacFarlane getting a little too much free rein to strut his stuff(ing).

SUMMARY: Ted attempts to blend adult comedy and childhood fantasy and does draw out the laughs, but this is one stuffed toy that could do with a bout in the washing machine and a little patching up here and there.

RATING: 3 out of 5 STARS

Jedd Jong

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