Flawed ‘Ted’ reveals Seth MacFarlane’s limits as a storyteller

Mark Wahlberg stars with a computer-animated stuffed bear in 'Ted'
Mark Wahlberg stars with a computer-animated stuffed bear in ‘Ted’

The true star of Ted, the new crass-talking-teddy-bear movie, isn’t lead Mark Wahlberg, gleefully playing in his Boston sandbox, or even the undeniably huggable CGI bear playing the title role. No, this is of, by and for the man who wrote, directed and voices Ted, Family Guy creator and voice actor Seth MacFarlane, who makes his feature-length debut with this movie, and in doing so, shows that the confines of an animated network show might actually be a structural necessity.

It isn’t like Ted is an awful movie or a disaster. Let’s face it: this is critic-proof stuff, fun but frivolous. Wahlberg is John Bennett, who we first meet as an outcast eight-year-old (played by Bretton Manley). When his parents buy him a Teddy Ruxpin-like stuffed animal, John wishes on a star that the two could be friends for life, and overnight, Ted becomes a real life pal. (Though eventually his voice changes, his appearance does not). There’s no secrecy here; John’s parents warm to Ted, and he becomes a national celebrity.

The CGI Ted, voiced by Seth MacFarlane, comes to life in 'Ted'
The CGI Ted, voiced by Seth MacFarlane, comes to life in ‘Ted’

Alas, you can only be the hot new thing for so long, and eventually, Ted becomes a washed-up has-been,  the snuggly male teddy bear equivalent of Tatum O’Neal, burying himself in hookers (despite, as it is pointed out, the lack of an important appendage), booze and blow. What hasn’t wavered is his friendship with a now 35-year-old John, who at some point over the years has learned social graces and moved in with a hot, ambitious PR exec named Lori (Mila Kunis). The three of them live together harmoniously, though after four years, Lori tells John that Ted has got to go.

Ted’s main humor comes from the bro-mance between John and the title character, convincingly animated through CGI effects, and MacFarlane employs the same non-sequiturs, pop culture references and cutaways that have become a Family Guy hallmark. Though I’ll leave some of the cameos a secret, the male madness includes a well-choreographed extended fight scene in a hotel room between the two friends and an appearance by forgotten Flash Gordon star and New York Jet Sam J. Jones. And for a long spell, this frat-house humor elicits plenty of shameless laughter.

But in certain ways, MacFarlane demonstrates the limits to his storytelling capabilities and visual acumen.  His mise-en-scène (I can’t think of a more highfalutin word for a less appropriate movie) is lacking in the vibrant colors such an animated film should merit, and a lot of his framing is rather basic. Additionally, random scenes seem to have been edited out for no good reason. Rex, Lori’s rich boss (John McHale, recycling his increasingly common snide onscreen persona) and potential love interest, decides at a party he wants to sleep with Lori – and then we never see him again for the rest of the night. After a fight between John and Lori (poor, talented Kunis is forced to play one of two opposite ends of the forgiving-brittle spectrum, with no grace notes in between), Ted mentions having gone to the old apartment and seen Lori with Rex. Why does the audience see none of this?

Ted with the ladies
Ted with the ladies

And story construction also suffers: John serenades Lori at a concert with Rita Coolidge’s “All Time High,” to disastrous effect. This scene should either be a major plot turning point or the climax of the film. It’s neither. Instead, the cutaways eventually stop and a ludicrous kidnapping storyline starring Giovanni Ribisi as an overzealous fan of both Ted and pop starlet Tiffany crowds the last half hour of the movie. Most significantly, the entire direction of Ted seems to lead to the epiphany that John, lazy and lacking in career self-confidence, is the real problem, not his fuzzy cohort. And this path ultimately leads to a dead end.

Such scrutiny is a fool’s errand, however. Ted doesn’t warrant such explication; there’s no poetry within it to parse. It’s formula filth. But we all know how much fun that can be.

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