By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
A signature moment in Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted” has a character recalling a memory that, onscreen, becomes a parody of the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” from “Saturday Night Fever.”
Except the parody scene isn’t based on the Travolta film, it’s recreated from the “Saturday Night Fever” parody in “Airplane!”, right down to the pilot’s uniform and the cheesy sound effects.
Whaaa? A parody of a parody, with no actual connection to anything we’re watching in “Ted”? This is the kind of meta mode favored by MacFarlane, the creator of TV’s “Family Guy” and other politically incorrect comedies. The pop-culture references come fast and furious, and MacFarlane trusts that his audience will understand every level.
In “Ted,” working in live action, MacFarlane commits to an actual storyline, which takes the customary theme of so many current comedies (manchild who can’t grow up) and adds a fantastic element.
The twist is that as a young boy, little John wished so hard that his teddy bear would become a real friend that it came true. Ted turned into a walking, talking entity, and, needless to say, world celebrity.
Twenty-five years later, the novelty has worn off, and John (Mark Wahlberg) spins his wheels at a go-nowhere job and swaps bong hits with Ted, now a weathered furball prone to raunchy outbursts.
Ted is voiced by MacFarlane, and brought to life via motion-capture animation. The joke of a profanity-spewing stuffed animal wears off quickly, and MacFarlane is smart enough to understand he needs to have some kind of emotional through-line to carry off a 100-minute movie.
Thus, when John’s longtime girlfriend (Mila Kunis) demands that the obnoxious bear get an apartment on his own, John and Ted must deal with their separation anxiety. So grounded is the movie in a certain “reality” that after a while we accept without question that Ted could have an apartment and a trashy girlfriend (human), despite his plush-toy status.
Kudos to Mark Wahlberg for playing all of this straight. His role must be approached as though the existence of a talking teddy bear were absolutely normal, or the whole movie falls apart.
I got tired of the movie’s insistence on topping itself with regular shock effects, many of which are sexual or racial jokes that are supposed to be funny because we’re all in on how retrograde the joke is. Mostly these just feel calculated to be naughty, in an almost mechanical way.
I did laugh, however, with some frequency, especially at one extended 1980s celebrity cameo. A fistfight between man and computer-generated teddy bear is admittedly so goofy as to enter a privileged realm of movie comedy.
The surprising thing is that MacFarlane takes the underlying theme seriously. “Ted” is the anti-“Toy Story,” a look at what happens when a boy can’t put his stuff away or say farewell to childish things. And it has a lot of poop jokes, too.
“Ted” (2½ stars)
“Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane creates this outrageous anti-“Toy Story” about a man (Mark Wahlberg) who can’t let go of his childhood teddy bear, who happens to be able to walk and talk. All the politically incorrect stuff feels a little mechanical, although the movie’s got its share of laughs; what’s surprising is how dutifully MacFarlane treats the underlying theme.
Rated: R, for language, nudity, violence.
Showing: Cinebarre, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Stanwood, Meridian, Oak Tree, Woodinville, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor.