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Bearly funny; MacFarlane's 'Ted' is too safe, eager to please

"Ted" is supposed to be the big step forward for Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the popular but fitfully loved animated TV series "Family Guy." It's his first feature film, and true to his television work ethic, he multitasks as director, star and co-writer.

During the press campaign for "Ted," MacFarlane has come off as a comedian no longer satisfied with TV fame and hoping to earn a little more legitimacy by going into film.

MacFarlane is sincere in his ambitions, and there are several ways that "Ted" shows his aptitude for larger projects. But the film is, of all things, too safe, even -- no, especially -- when it's trying to be edgy.

"Ted" instantly dates itself with jokes about Justin Bieber, Taylor Lautner and other celebrities we might not still laugh at a year from now. A lot of the humor also falls back on the casually mean-spirited attitude MacFarlane takes to anyone who isn't in his target audience: Muslims, Asians, Jews and gays are subject to repeated tossed-off insults. We can debate how funny those are, and either way, there's a lot to laugh at here. The reason "Ted" is disappointing is because it's all so familiar. The film is too eager to please an audience that knows exactly what to expect. MacFarlane's scope might be bigger, but his repertoire isn't any different.

"Ted" begins with an inspired premise. In the mid-1980s, 8-year-old John Bennett gets a teddy bear for Christmas. He clings to it like the best friend he's never had, and one night, he wishes that the bear could come alive. The next morning, the teddy bear has awakened as Ted, a walking, talking and eternally loyal companion. It's a boyhood dream come true -- and 25 years later, it's still true.

John (Mark Wahlberg) and Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) live together in an apartment in Boston (chosen, presumably, because it gives Wahlberg and MacFarlane an excuse to use terrible accents). Having grown up together, they're now sharing beers and bong hits instead of hugs. Ted enjoyed fame in the '80s, as would happen to any anthropomorphic bear, so people have just accepted the friendship, including John's patient girlfriend, Lori (Mila Kunis).

But Lori's patience is running out. Ted, his cutesy voice now coarsened after years of hard living, doesn't have any responsibilities. John, who works at a car rental agency, seems content for life on a couch with his childhood friend. Lori wants marriage and life without a living teddy bear, so for the first time, John and Ted have to separate. Ted has little problem taking his drug use and womanizing to new extremes. John has a problem resisting his part in the fun. And so the complications of a man-bear-woman pseudo-love triangle ensue.

Ted, the character, is the film's one great invention. He's a nifty CGI creation -- the film puts him to work in a fistfight with Wahlberg and a chase through Fenway Park -- and, more importantly, he's a creatively corrupted example of childhood gone sour with time. Maybe the film is so imaginative with Ted because it's so utterly conventional with everything else. John and Lori's romance is sweet and predictable, and other humans exists only for some kind of ethnic joke, sex joke or cutaway joke.

Oh, those cutaway jokes. "Family Guy" gets flak for a lot of things, but one of the most frequent criticisms is for its "cutaway jokes": random, repeated insertions of irrelevant and half-formed gags that help stretch each story to 22 minutes.

"Ted" has its fair share of these in dance sequences, an overlong humping joke and "Flash Gordon"-inspired fantasies. In a comedy that runs almost two hours, they feel especially disconnected and unwelcome. And they reminded me of the "Cartoon Wars" episode of "South Park," which suggested that "Family Guy" is written by a staff of manatees that bounces around balls with disparate ideas and pop-culture references to create an episode's worth of jokes. In small ways, "Ted" feels like the vision of an emerging comic filmmaker. As a whole, it still feels like something from the manatees.




2 stars (out of 4)    

STARRING: Seth MacFarlane, Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Joel McHale    

DIRECTOR: Seth MacFarlane    

RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes    

RATING: R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language and some drug use.    

THE LOWDOWN: A boy's teddy bear comes to life and remains a lifelong foul-mouthed, beer-drinking friend.