★★★★ (out of 5 stars)
One of the highlights of my year thus far was meeting a Mormon missionary with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Family Guy. The kid was young, fresh-faced and eager to win souls for the Lord – and also able to recount Peter Griffin’s battles with the giant chicken as if they had been written by Joseph Smith himself.
My reaction to that was pretty much what you’d expect: 20 percent horrified, and 80 percent really kinda thrilled. Truly and unmistakably, this is now Seth MacFarlane’s world; he’s just allowing the rest of us to live in it.
In Ted, MacFarlane’s first outing as a feature-film director, a childhood wish yields John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) a pal for life: a talking teddy bear (voice of MacFarlane) who ends up enabling John’s layabout impulses well past their expiration date. Viewers who are up on their Family Guy – which, as we’ve established, is just about everybody – will know to expect a nonstop barrage of transgressive bodily function gags and pop-culture takedowns. They’ll also be wise to the over/under: One in three jokes falls to the earth with an audible thud; another third inspire indulgent, take-your-base chuckles; and the remainder are hilarious drive-by mockings so breathtakingly of-the-moment that the word “genius” doesn’t seem terribly inappropriate.
MacFarlane has joked that Ted is essentially You, Me and Dupree with a stuffed animal as the third wheel. It also revisits the domestic dynamic of School of Rock, although this time, the long-suffering girlfriend character (the splendid Mila Kunis) is not a killjoy bitch, but rather a genuinely fun and easygoing person with some honest gripes about her boyfriend’s disappointing inability to shoulder even the most basic burdens of adulthood.
Yet the movie to which Ted enjoys the closest kinship is last year’s The Muppets, another rite-of-no-passage picture in which an overgrown kid had to gain a bit of distance from a nonhuman companion with whom he had shared years of mass-media imbibing. (In The Muppets, Jason Segel and Walter shared a passion for Kermit and the gang; in Ted, John and his fuzzy mate bond over just about everything else, particularly the 1980 stinker Flash Gordon.) Like The Muppets’ Walter, Ted symbolizes a precious and fragile part of his buddy’s psyche, that portion that wonders why he should have to put aside childish things in a culture that increasingly fails to require it of anybody.
That push and pull is rendered in a surprisingly sensitive way that makes Ted not just a potty-mouthed retread of The Muppets, but a highly watchable, even affecting buddy picture in its own right. Especially in its later stages (and thanks in part to some flawless CGI that fully vindicates the tag line “Ted is real”), the movie doesn’t shrink from its responsibility to the emotional attachments it has fostered. Because really, any audience that will laugh at hearing Norah Jones take the blame for 9/11 secretly just needs a good teddy bear to hug.
Ted’s biggest surprise is the revelation that old-fashioned, non-ironic youthful yearning has a place in Grand Prefect MacFarlane’s world, too. Maybe he’ll even let us have pets.