Having thoroughly subverted the sitcom formula on TV, “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane targets bigscreen romantic comedies with “Ted,” a predictably irreverent satire that’s sweeter and, sadly, less funny than you might expect. Mark Wahlberg plays an overgrown kid who can’t seem to take the next step with dream-girl Mila Kunis, thanks to the constant distraction and ongoing bad influence of his talking teddy. More surreal than the film’s ill-behaved bear is the fact this loony concept was greenlit by Universal and produced with CG instead of sock puppets, though the gamble brings another R-rated funnymaker to Judd Apatow’s home studio.
It all begins with a Christmas wish made in 1985, a tongue-in-cheek miracle relayed by narrator Patrick Stewart. Desperate for a playmate, a lonely Boston kid named John (Bretton Manley) asks the stars to bring his stuffed animal to life. The boy and his bear become best friends, pledging always to be there for one another, and Ted holds up his end of the bargain, even as the novelty of a talking toy turns Ted into something of an overnight celebrity on roughly the level of a C-list child star.
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Flash forward to the present. John has grown up to be Wahlberg, and Ted is starting to look a bit threadbare. As personalities go, John is stuck in manchild mode, barely responsible enough to hold down his job at a rental-car company, much less propose to Lori (Kunis), his impossibly patient g.f. of four years. Meanwhile, Ted has advanced to a dark place, his happiness now dependent on hookers and drugs, though his raunchy antics are rendered more hilarious than horrifying by MacFarlane’s incompatibly deep voiceover.
As with Puff the Magic Dragon, it’s time that John retired his childhood plaything and moved on with his life. The same story could be told with a boorish, John Belushi-like roommate in Ted’s place, only then, MacFarlane couldn’t get away with half the jokes, which seem more outrageous when coming from a stuffed animal.
It must be said, Ted is one ugly bear — the poor man’s Teddy Ruxpin. Just imagine the countless design meetings that must have gone into deciding the style for a stuffed animal that appears roughly the size of a human 6-year-old while also looking paunchy enough to be pushing 40. That must surely have been followed by still more meetings to determine Ted’s abilities, expressivity and weight (those foley punches sound like he’s stuffed with flour), all of which translate to a visually bland, occasionally disembodied anthropomorphic teddy, with the character animation the weak link in a otherwise polished production.
However badly adjusted John may be, he’s no match for those who were denied their ideal toys as kids. That’s an entirely different class of malcontents, represented here by Giovanni Ribisi, intense as ever as a jealous single dad determined to steal Ted to amuse his tubby son (Aedin Mincks).
The script, which received an assist from “Family Guy” contributors Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, is pretty straightforward at the plot level: Lori gives John an ultimatum, John forces Ted to move out and get a job, Ted screws things up for John and gets kidnapped while the former buddies are on the outs.
Such simplicity should allow the three writers to maximize the laughs along the way. And while “Ted” may be pretty funny by studio-comedy standards, it’s not as densely scripted as a typical half-hour episode from one of MacFarlane’s TV shows, which is surprising, considering the impact “Family Guy” has had on the pacing and digressive asides of live-action laffers.
Besides, it’s relatively easy to offend. The real cleverness comes in “Ted’s” more abstract bursts of inspiration, including self-deprecating cameos by singer Norah Jones and “Flash Gordon” star Sam J. Jones (no relation). Nearly every pop-culture gag in the film — and there are many — comes with a built-in explanation, lest the references escape a broader aud than the target pothead-and-frat-boy crowd.
And yet, by waiting this long to make his feature debut, MacFarlane was able to establish a reputation solid enough to inspire confidence from Universal and attract a cast of this caliber. Few stars can adapt to the needs of comedy, drama and action as well as Wahlberg, who gets to do a little of each as the pic’s naive straight man, while delivering a few sly in-jokes — from dropping his pants to singing a nearly-forgotten ’80s hit — that poke fun at his Marky Mark origins.
MacFarlane deftly manages the various styles, too, though sincerity seems to be just beyond his ironic grasp. Clearly, it’s easier for him to write a sarcastic narrator than a sentimental finale, and though “Ted” tries to get emotional in the end, the resolution rings hollow, if only because the “Velveteen Rabbit” formula doesn’t leave room for dick jokes.