In the right hands, CG imaging and VFX technology can open up new vistas of comic mischief. With “Ted,” those hands belong to Seth MacFarlane, making his film directing debut but already a proven hand in television with “Family Guy,” “American Dad!” and “The Cleveland Show.”
“Ted” imagines that a childhood miracle — a beloved teddy bear who comes to life thanks to a Christmas Day wish — has outlived its usefulness now that the boy has become a man. That would be John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), a 35-year-old man with a teddy bear for his beer-drinking, pot-smoking, foul-mouthed buddy. Talk about arrested development!
Mark Wahlberg gets a pass into whatever Hall of Fame exists for actors who brilliantly play to an empty space where the tech wizards will later place a talking creature for the finished product. His aging kid bonds with this living toy named Ted like Crazy Glue.
MacFarlane himself “played” Ted, wearing a bear suit and miked traditionally so the actors could play against this wise-cracking creature. So both motion-capture and 3D animation went into the creation of the title character. One fight scene between man and teddy is simply amazing. How’d they do that? Another inspired moment, and shades of “Zelig,” comes when Ted in 1985 turns up on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon.
However all visual FX aside, like the recent “Robot & Frank,” a buddy movie about a robot and an aging con man, “Ted” is only as good as a friendship between a grown man and his childhood toy is believable. Thanks to MacFarlane’s astute direction and a script he wrote with fellow “Family Guy” writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild from his own story, the whole complicated affair comes off smooth as silk.
Wahlberg lets his face and body language suggest a man-child gone to seed, a one-time lonely boy whose childhood “friend” rescued him but has now become an unwitting albatross to the man’s emotional development.
John does have a girlfriend. Does he ever, in fact, with Mila Kunis’ breathtakingly patient and beautiful Lori Collins. (Maybe Lori dug the idea of a three-way with a teddy bear but the film never goes into that area.) After four years living together, Lori’s hope for a ring get dampened by this, ahem, third party. Something’s got to give and that’s the story of “Ted.”
You can, of course, study the deep-dish psychology behind the story — you know, it’s really about a man who refuses to grow up and the fuzzy bear is just a symbol of this emotional immaturity. Let’s leave that for the film quarterlies.
If you’ve got a talking teddy bear, the robust return of Sam Jones of “Flash Gordon” infamy, a vocal narration by Patrick Stewart and appearances by songstress Norah Jones as one of Ted’s exes and Ryan Reynolds as — well, let’s keep that as a surprise — there’s too many laughs to worry over the message.
The screenplay keeps the two protagonists hopping and bopping around the greater Boston area with John and Ted sporting dead-accurate New England accents as they play off one another superbly. There are encounters with boozy party-goers, adventurous hookers, Lori’s lecherous boss (Joel McHale), a creepy stalker (Giovanni Ribisi), Ted’s aggressively carnal main squeeze (Jessica Barth) and Fenway Park itself thrown into the comic mix.
One anticipates a comic let-down somewhere along the line but it never happens. MacFarlane and his cohorts keep the damn ball rolling as the magical stuffed teddy remains the life of the party.
Human and talking non-humans have occupied the comic screen going back to Francis the Talking Mule and Jessica Rabbit. What floats all these efforts though is smart writing and a sustained level of visual trickery that creates a world in which the impossible is the everyday norm. While the humor is raunchy in “Ted,” it never feels gratuitous as it does in “That’s My Boy.” If you were to hang out with a talking teddy, this is probably what it would be like.
So a big shout-out to VFX producer Jenny Fulle and VFX supervisor Blair Clark for jobs superbly done. And to MacFarlane for his beer-swilling bear who is ultimately the voice of reason that reaches the inner man in John Bennett. All this makes “Ted” the comedy surprise so far of the year.
Opens: Friday, June 29 (Universal)
Production companies: Universal Pictures and Media Rights Capital present a Fuzzy Door, Blue Grass Films, Smart Entertainment production
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Seth MacFarlane, Joel McHale, Giovanni Ribisi, Patrick Warburton, Matt Walsh, Jessica Barth, Aedin Mincks, Bill Smitrovich, Patrick Stewart, Norah Jones, Sam Jones, Tom Skerritt
Director: Seth MacFarlane
Screenwriters: Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild
Story by: Seth MacFarlane
Producers: Scott Stuber, Seth MacFarlane, John Jacobs, Jason Clark
Executive producer: Jonathan Mone
Director of photography: Michael Barrett
Production designer: Stephen Lineweaver
Costume designer: Debra McGuire
Music: Walter Murphy
Editor: Jeff Freeman
Rated R, 105 minutes.