Review: Seth MacFarlane’s ‘Ted’ has a foul mouth but a sweet heart

If you had told me at the start of this summer that I would prefer both the Seth MacFarlane film and the Katy Perry film to “Prometheus,” I would have laughed in your face.

Seth MacFarlane has become enormously wealthy thanks to his animation empire, the foundation of which is “Family Guy,” a show that tends to be very divisive.  I’ve written before about my problems with it, and I think by now, you know whether or not you’re a fan of the show’s shotgun-style sensibility and the near-constant pop culture randomness.  The thing that always surprises me about the show is how MacFarlane’s able to get some of the material by Fox’s standards and practices, because “Family Guy” is frequently dirty in a way that is startling.  Looking at “American Dad” or “The Cleveland Show,” one could be forgiven for thinking that he’s basically a one-trick pony.  A successful one-trick pony, certainly, but limited nonetheless.

Walking into “Ted,” all I’d seen was the first red-band trailer, and it looked to me like exactly what I would expect from a Seth MacFarlane film.  However, what the trailers haven’t really sold yet is the emotional core of the movie which works incredibly well, and while the movie has a dirty mouth, it’s got a sweet heart, and it suggests to me that MacFarlane’s signature interests are tempered by a new maturity to his work.

Working with “Family Guy” writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, MacFarlane has crafted a very simple high concept idea, then explored it fully, which seems like a skill that eludes many filmmakers these days.  “Ted” tells the story of John Bennett, a little boy who makes a Christmas wish that his teddy bear would come to life and be his friend forever.  When that actually happens, it causes a momentary stir, and for a little while, Ted becomes a media celebrity.  After that brief fairy tale opening, we jump forward in time to a 35-year-old John, who still lives with Ted, who has now become a pot-smoking embodiment of all of John’s most adolescent impulses.  John’s girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) doesn’t dislike Ted, but she is ready to see John grow up, and she feels like that’s never going to happen as long as he can fall back on Ted and the bad habits they share.

Ultimately, when you strip out the high-concept gag of the talking teddy bear, “Ted” deals with something that is very much a part of our culture right now, this prolonged childhood that so many men seem to insist on.  I’ve been incredibly lucky to find people who will pay me indulge all of the interests of my childhood in a professional capacity, but that doesn’t mean I’ve avoided adulthood.  When we look at mainstream films and see a recurrent theme appearing, there has to be a reason for that, some cause that people are reacting to, and “Ted” manages to grapple in intelligent fashion with the way our culture both allows and condemns this sort of arrested development.  I think what surprised me most was realizing that some of the people who make up MacFarlane’s most passionate fanbase are going to find themselves under this particular microscope.

That’s not to say “Ted” is some heady think-piece.  It is, first and foremost, a comedy, and it is very funny for much of its running time.  Because these are meant to be real characters and not just parody templates, there is a weight to these characters that we never see on “Family Guy.”  The childhood friendship between John and Ted is etched quickly, but it’s done in a way that makes it matter once we cut to them as adults.  MacFarlane’s very good at showing us why John needs his “Thunder Buddy” and it makes for good stakes once Lori asks John to take some steps away from Ted.  The FX teams at the Tippett Studio and the Australian-based Iloura Studio that brought Ted to life deserves serious Oscar consideration, because he’s a credible lead character, and there are myriad details that sell the reality of the situation.  i like the spots on Ted’s body where his fur’s been worn off by time revealing the mesh underneath.  He looks like a teddy bear who someone’s kept for their whole life, well-loved and well-worn.  Beyond that, MacFarlane is smart enough to avoid the same sort of avalanche of nonsensical pop culture jokes in favor of character-based humor where the situation is absurd enough to earn the laughs without having to reach for them.

Mark Wahlberg is at his best when he’s playing this sort of earnest, somewhat childlike character, and he’s got a great easy chemistry with MacFarlane as Ted.  Mila Kunis seems to be getting more beautiful with each passing year, but more importantly, she’s gotten better and better as a performer, and she brings some lovely subtle grace notes to a role that easily could have just been “the pushy girlfriend.”  There are some nice cameos from familiar faces, one in particular that left me sore from laughing, and nice supporting work from cast members like Patrick Warburton and Matt Walsh.  And if you like lovely ladies, so does MacFarlane, and he has cast the movie with a number of them in smaller roles, and it’s hard to argue with the results.

Michael Barrett has become a very reliable mainstream cinematographer, giving the films he works on a lush bigscreen sheen.  I think he’s an important collaborator for MacFarlane here, because the film treats Ted as an actor, not a special effect, which goes a long way towards selling him as real.  Also, it’s sort of mind-boggling that a MacFarlane comedy about a foul-mouthed teddy bear would have one of the best fistfights of the summer and one of the best car chases of the summer.  Walter Murphy’s score is instantly recognizable as belonging to Seth MacFarlane’s world, and it’s good that he’s working with so many of his long-time collaborators here.  It really feels like he made the film from a position of confidence.  There’s nothing about it that feels unpolished or undercooked.

Could I do without some of the weird digressions like the film’s obsession with Tom Skerritt?  Sure.  Is the subplot about Lori’s douchebag boss (Joel McHale) familiar material that never really adds anything to the film?  Sure.  Could I have stood to see more of the disturbing character played by Giovanni Ribisi?  Totally.  But the film works so frequently, and so many of the laughs are so strong, that I feel like this is a major announcement of intent by MacFarlane.  Obviously he’s going to keep milking the cash cow of his animated projects as long as he can, but I wish he would make the jump to feature filmmaking full-time, because I would like to see more films with this sort of energy and wit and playful invention.  It may be a simple story, told directly, but that is a virtue in this case, and “Ted” seems like a wish fulfilled, a personal vision played out on a studio-scale canvass.

“Ted” opens Friday in theaters everywhere.