If there's one thing Seth MacFarlane knows how to achieve, it’s outrage; Wikipedia has a page dedicated to listing “criticism of Family Guy.”
So it’s no surprise that Ted stirred up controversy among everyone from feminist critics aghast at a throwaway rape gag, to support groups for motor neurone disease (thanks to the line “From one man to another, I hope you get Lou Gehrig’s disease”).
Yet being showrunner on the 00’s naughtiest animated sitcom is no guarantee of having a hit movie. Just ask Trey Parker and Matt Stone, whose Team America: World Police failed to connect with an audience beyond the South Park faithful.
What separates Ted, both from other gross-out comedies and MacFarlane’s previous shows – and has seen it jostle with hunger gamers in the $200m club at the US box office – is that outrage isn’t the whole story.
Just as pot-smoking, hooker-hiring Ted never loses his ickle-voiced “I love you,” his star vehicle also has heart.
Seth MacFarlane: sensitive guy? It’s not as surprising as it sounds.
This self-confessed equal opportunities offender is also the political activist who downed tools during the 2008 Writer’s Strike, and the big-band crooner who released an album of swing covers.
Regardless of a somewhat outrageous title character, the film is really about Ted’s “thunder buddy for life” John Bennett... and the character looks kinda familiar. John, like Seth, is a stuck-in-the-’80s man-child.
John, like Seth, is at a crossroads: choose a responsible future with girlfriend Lori, or continue to be led astray by the walking, talking symbol of his immaturity?
It’s revealing that MacFarlane structures the film in favour of Lori by making this a classic romcom love triangle between guy, gal and magic toy.
On paper, the character of Lori is a misogynist nightmare of a charmless, killjoy shrew; on screen, she’s Mila Kunis, and Mila Kunis is a pretty cool person to hang out with. Who needs a teddy bear when John can cuddle her?
But hang on a mo, isn’t Ted meant to be Seth? Exhibit A: Ted is a portrait of an unambitious boor, coasting on his celebrity and always quick to belittle – exactly what MacFarlane’s critics have accused him of doing.
Exhibit B: the voice. It’s hardly a surprise that both male leads share MacFarlane’s DNA; as the juggling act between raunch and romance suggests, MacFarlane wants the whole cake, and he’s laid on quite the feast.
If trailers suggested a one-joke movie, then the film itself is MacFarlane’s attempt to supersize that gag. As a result, it’s not the most disciplined of stories. Orson Welles famously compared filmmaking to a train set; MacFarlane treats his debut like, well, a teddy bear.
The impression is that MacFarlane has wandered into the Hollywood branch of Build-A-Bear and stuffed his toy until it’s fit to burst. The result is not a movie to be admired for its seamless plotting, refined wit or social comment.
The humour scatterguns between easy laughs for MacFarlane’s stoner student fanbase and in-jokes about films made before those kids were born.
The demographic who’ll delight in Wahlberg caterwauling through Octopussy theme tune ‘All Time High’, or the Flash Gordon geek-out as Ted gets high with Sam J. Jones, is very different to those doing the cheap sniggering at gay fight clubs or duck-chucking Oriental stereotypes.
MacFarlane proves himself an equal opportunities plotter, particularly in a final act that is stapled onto the story with the same rough improvisation with which Ted mends his own ear at one point.
Is Ted’s patchiness the inevitable consequence of an over-reacher struggling to maintain quality control over feature length, or a cheeky mea culpa that MacFarlane – like his stuffed anti-hero – is still prone to fucking things up?
Ted’s stuffing might be lumpy and misshapen, but MacFarlane’s Midas touch remains in the stitching.
MacFarlane’s background in animation pays off in the year’s most unexpected CGI triumph, since the film’s biggest jaw-droppers aren’t tasteless gags but visual coups: a seamlessly achieved archive encounter with Johnny Carson, or Ted and Wahlberg duking it out in the funniest hotel room fight since Borat.
And MacFarlane’s gift for catching us off-guard with non-sequitur one-liners ties the rest of the film together.
The funniest gags actually have the least to do with the story, whether it be Ted enacting the life stories of the “fucked-up fish” at the aquarium or a mention of Brandon Routh, and are as cruel, unfair and hilarious as anything in MacFarlane’s resumé.
Anybody who still reckons this is business as usual should check out the “unrated” version’s extra five minutes of filthy talk.
The additions veer off in Family Guy-style tangents (further scurrilous Cheers gossip from Ted Danson; an awkward moment between Lori’s workmates) or down tonal cul-de-sacs (a basement horror-show of tortured teddies).
Consider, though, that this is what MacFarlane chose to cut, in lieu of the lovey-dovey stuff between Wahlberg and Kunis, or the heartwarming banter between the “thunder buddies”.
Sweet trumps sour; heck, maybe Seth MacFarlane is growing up after all.