Seth MacFarlane isn’t the first animation maestro to try full-length live action.
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Having expanded his cartoon universe to three series (The Cleveland Show and American Dad! joining Family Guy), MacFarlane was clearly looking for a challenge.
The initial plan was to place the foul-mouthed, dope-smoking, hooker-loving teddy bear into yet another animated show.
But the idea of planting the bear in a traditional romcom context struck, around the same time as the technology had reached a place where a CG mo-capped bear could fully convince. And lo, Ted the adult comedy was born.
The basic premise is simple enough, if casually fantastical. Christmas 1985: living in the Boston suburbs and longing for a best friend, eight-year-old John wishes his stuffed bear to life. His wish comes true; John gets his buddy, and Ted becomes a celeb.
Refreshingly, MacFarlane doesn’t go down the well-worn imaginary-friend route or keep Ted in the closet. Instead, the character gets the full child-star treatment, including mag covers and an amazingly well-integrated appearance on The Johnny Carson Show.
However, like most child stars, sustaining public interest is a problem. Flash forward 20-plus years; Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) and a 35-year-old John (Mark Wahlberg) are still best buddies, but they’re fresh out of cuteness.
Ted’s a womanising, unemployed slacker; John has a dead-end job in a car-rental joint. This may work just fine for them both, were it not for John’s girlfriend Lori (Kunis), who’s hoping her partner might leave his teddy behind and step with her into the adult world.
In MacFarlane’s savvy hands – he directs the movie, co-written with Family Guy regulars Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild – it’s a nuanced set-up.
Family Guy viewers know how swiftly they accepted that baby Stewie and family dog Brian (mis)behave like grown-ups; with Ted, one of the leads being a living, breathing bear is almost immaterial.
Instead, the focus is on real questions. When is it time to grow up? How much should you compromise to do so? And when do you place your new relationships above your old ones?
When Ted shifts away from the “Look at that, it’s a swearing bear!” novelty circus, and delves into these deeper, more relatable subjects, you’re given a reason to keep watching and caring.
Not that Ted is a conventional comedy: it’s still stocked with enough fart jokes, pratfalls, flashbacks, digressions and throwaway obscenity to keep MacFarlane’s regular customers satisfied.
There are so many nods to the Griffin clan and their unique ways that it sometimes feels like you’re watching an extended episode.
Ted, for one, is basically Peter Griffin shrunk to footstool size and wearing a bear suit. (In one self-referencing moment – of which there aren’t too many – Ted notes how people think he sounds like Peter, who’s also voiced by multi-tasker MacFarlane).
Quick-fire and high-scoring as it is, the cartoonishness wouldn’t work without the rest of the cast playing it straight. Wahlberg hits every note as the dude torn between his two closest companions, projecting a wide-eyed, well-meaning if clueless innocence as he’s semi-reluctantly dragged into adulthood.
In the hands of a lesser actress, Mila Kunis’ Lori could have come across as a miserable nag; instead, you empathise with her struggles to get her man on track. The supporting cast also bring their A-game.
Giovanni Ribisi is the twisted Ted fan who wants to get close to his childhood idol, while Community’s Joel McHale shines as Lori’s over-interested, creepy, meddling boss.
And, never straying too far from the Family Guy playbook, there’s a stack of cameos: MacFarlane regular Patrick Stewart is the film’s smoothly deadpan narrator, while other stars of stage, screen and fondly remembered ’80s cheese pop up in unexpected and generally winning ways.
It almost goes without saying, but Ted isn’t for everyone: it’s lewd, crude and rape-joke rude, as happy with the cheap shots as it is with nudging the narrative onward.
But if you’ve already bought into the type of off-centre world that MacFarlane’s conjured before, you’ll enjoy seeing that world fleshed out and – when it comes to the crunch – made surprisingly cuddly.
A fabulous first live-action effort, combining R-rated hilarity with skilled storytelling as it slips some real heart into the stuffing of a toy bear.