“I told you I don’t sound that much like Peter Griffin!” the titular bear declares during one of the films many drunken montages, an obvious nod to the fact that it is the same man dubbing both with his very distinctive tones; Mr. Seth McFarlane. It’s a throwaway line but also i feel, a fitting one and would have been regardless of the specific reference; “I don’t look anything like Brian,” would certainly still have sufficed. The point that McFarlane is trying to make with this moment – albeit the secondary point, the punchline takes priority – is nothing to do with his literal range of voices (a self-admitted weakness) but much more to do with his figurative one. People will come to Ted expecting to see a feature length Family Guy movie but in actual fact it is so much more than that and this is the admirable but ever apparent flaw in the film.
That said though there is a lot here that brings to mind that TV show and others: the letterbox format (perhaps a feature graciously gifted only on our screening by a robotic projector overlord or perhaps a planned choice) makes the first post-credits shot of an apartment block with Seth’s name overlaid feel like something from a sitcom, the occasional cut-aways make it feel like a single camera show, the exaggerated nature of the characters and their comedy suggests a cartoon while the ridiculous fight scenes (featuring fowl) and the unapologetic lengths that the film allows its jokes to stretch too more specifically suggest Seth’s previous work. It seems undeniable at times that there is some tonal connection between the two but these are moments of deja vu more than they are real memories; this is a different beast entire.
Though it is nowhere near as often as in shows like The Simpsons – it is after all a much more cynical cartoon than that one – Family Guy did still occasionally tackle things in a somewhat emotionally serious manner – The Brian and Stewie episodes the most famous examples – but even those have nothing on this. Before I set foot in the cinema I had the film described to me as Speilberg’s attempt to make an Apatow movie and this for me is a much more accurate description of what McFarlane delivers than any involving the man’s prior efforts within the illustrated medium. There is a real heart to the film and Seth seems to care just as much about about forwarding the themes of childhood, innocence and friendship as he does providing something ridiculously funny and this keeps it beating strong throughout as those two directors do.
For each of the televisual traits that it displays though there is something uniquely cinematic about Ted and this furthers that connection between creators: the fact that it is filmed live action for one alters almost everything about the effect of certain scenes, the violence especially; it feels much more vicious when using actors instead of animation. The status of the big screen also allows McFarlane to make some of his raciest jokes; cinema is a much less censored medium and he makes the most of this, if only by well exceeding his usual allowance of adult language. The budget of the big screen can also be seen in a number of scenes, the car chase and aforementioned physical conflicts among the most obvious (although of course the show did variations on these too), but where Seth differs from those two (who also made their debut on Television) is in the polish of the finished product. Ted is a terrific film but also a terribly tangled one that doesn’t always make the most of what the medium allows it.
But enough about those other guys and back to this one. Seth McFarlane is obviously known for his work on Family Guy and American Dad – not so much the Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy – but do you know exactly what it is that he does there? He was made the highest paid writer in the world for his work on the show but is only credited for three actual Family Guy scripts and as for direction, in so much as you can a cartoon, he has none. So despite his relative fame and the noteworthyness of his name McFarlane is very much making his debut with Ted, doing something very different than what he is used to and judged on that scale rather than as an established creator his direction is decent; and that’s damning with faint praise. A lot of the visual stuff feels fresh for film, if somewhat familiar for fans of the show, but the film is far from fully realised on a technical level. Some scenes simply end without a wrap-up punch line or obvious resolution, hell some whole plots too, i mean what was the point of Patrick Warburton’s character? This may seem like a little thing to pick at, but it is reflective of the messyness present on a more macro scale.
At its core the film’s story is that of a love triangle with Ted and Mila Kunis’ character standing at opposite ends and pulling on our protagonist, perhaps then a better metaphor would be a love tug-’o-war. The relationships both feel real thanks to the charm and occasional chemistry of the actors and bears involved, but while the banal brotherhood of the boydult and his bear is strange and new to us the regularity of his real relationship is not, in fact it is almost boring in comparison. To make things worse this romance element, though vital, is rakingly repetitive; both in that we’ve all seen it before in other, often better films and also because in this film the conflicts are circular, the arguments go around and around and around and around. A fact that the end of the movie only exacerbates with its own inherent circularity. There are times where Ted takes the expectations we have of the Rom-Com structure and twists where it takes them to great effect, but then there are others where the subversions feel almost accidental, the result of random chance rather than any great desire to say something, which is true of the relationship with Ted himself.
It doesn’t take much to figure out what or the meaning behind the bear, mainly because it is the meaning behind all teddy bears: that soft safety of childhood innocence. However, what he does with this idea in Ted is interesting if a little inconsistent: the corruption of the cuddly toy in sync with that of its increasingly cynical owner is a potent image, but it is one all but skipped over during the opening credits. similarly McFarlane manages to make it seem toward the end of the film that this is going to be a movie about maturity, about a boy becoming a man but he swerves at the last minute to save sequel potential, undercutting all of this in the process. Which is such a shame since the simple image of John sitting static as the thunder struck outside was a potentially very potent one. There was also potential in John having his ‘innocence’ taken from him by a Giovanni Ribisi’s creepy character, a guy whose abusive father prevented him from ever having any, though perhaps that is a reading best left unviable.
You may say that things like metaphor aren’t necessary in a movie such as this but Seth would, I think, disagree and say that he clearly set out to make a movie that meant something. At its core though this is a comedy thus the jokes are key to whether or not it lives or dies. A lot of the jokes don’t work, the ones that try too hard to shock through racism and 9/11 references rarely got giggles, but they come at such a rate that these don’t matter; even if one misses the next will get a wry smile and the one after that will have you on the floor laughing. So the story is sweet and smutty in equal parts and the best pieces of the film are those that balance these two seemingly disparate elements. The result? Real feeling characters with real reactions to real emotional tests that also elicit really, really big laughs; that we don’t necessarily feel all of these things with them is unfortunate, that we feel any of them more than makes up for the technical flaws. At the end of the day most movies fail to deliver on even the exact point of their premise, in the case of a comedy laughs, so that this one does, tries for more and almost fails shouldn’t stand against it and based on the riotous reaction it got from the crowd i saw it with nobody is.