THE relationship between a man and his plush fabric pal can be a rare and close thing. Years ago, I interviewed film director and muppeteer Frank Oz for Muppet Treasure Island, on the understanding that this was to be conducted as an encounter with Miss Piggy.
As I walked in the room, Oz reached into a box and pulled out the porcine idol, a substantial three-footer. “Wow, she’s huge,” I blurted. Oz looked irritated and the pig immediately curled her snout: “What do you mean, ‘huge’?”
In Ted, Mark Wahlberg plays a man whose longest love affair is with a talking stuffed bear that seems no less intense than Oz and his pig – or Jason Segel and the entire Muppet clan, for that matter. An opening sequence, amusingly infused with Spielbergian awe, sets out the origins of this bromance; lonely John Bennett is given a toy bear one Christmas and unexpectedly his wish that the bear could walk and talk is granted.
In the present day, grown-up John (Wahlberg) is 35, happy working for a car rental agency, has a hot girlfriend (Mila Kunis) and is still hanging out with Ted. Ted has also grown up into a potty-mouthed bear (voiced by Seth MacFarlane, who also directs, co-wrote the script and produced) who huffs bongs, swears and dates hookers: “I have fired off several letters of complaint about the small penis thing to Hasbro.” Charlie Sheen would be speechless in admiration.
The two pals spend a lot of time drinking beer, enthusing about Flash Gordon and punning with each other in strenuous blue collar Boston accents, but their closeness is strictly platonic: the bear can be relied on keeping that clear (“Ya bastid. I love ya. I’m not gay”). Even so, John’s girlfriend thinks the bear is holding him back from making something of himself, and wants Ted to move out.
Thanks to motion-capture and some imaginative design, Ted is an expressive, hyper-realistic creation but Wahlberg is no less gifted, playing John as a likeable dim bulb with unironic commitment. A punch-up between man and bear is all the more remarkable when you consider that Wahlberg shot all of it in an empty room.
This is MacFarlane’s first feature film, but it shares a lot of DNA with his TV work, especially his adult cartoon series Family Guy. Ted even admits he sounds like Peter Griffin, the paterfamilias in a dysfunctional household which includes a misfit teenage girl, voiced by Kunis. And the Griffins’ talking dog Brian is rather like Ted, except with O’grades and martinis. Like Ted, Brian goes on inter-species dates and, like Ted, his true nature keeps breaking through; Brian cannot resist a ball, and Ted gets embarrassed by his toy voice, which squeaks “I Love You” at inopportune moments.
Does this matter? Not really, but it’s a shame MacFarlane has stuck within his comfort zone. Nor has he got to grips with the rhythm of a full feature-length film; a third act with Giovanni Ribisi as a creepy Ted fan feels like extra stuffing. But the bottom line is that I laughed and didn’t feel guilty about it. It’s not a consistent film – for every snortingly funny profanity, there is another that deserves crickets and tumbleweed – but in a month where Batman and athletics are its main rivals, Ted is more than bearable.
Director: Seth MacFarlane
Running time: 106 minutes
On general release from Wednesday