Erstwhile funnyman Seth MacFarlane — who in recent years has been tediously flogging that perennial dead horse “Family Guy” into the ground — has redeemed himself somewhat with his directorial feature debut “Ted.” Perhaps conscious of where his success stems from, MacFarlane dips his toe into live-action film while maintaining the core facets of what has made him such a star: namely, a razor-sharp script and quirky animation.
Gone are the cartoonish constraints of Peter Griffin’s Quahog, while in come some cutting-edge mischief in the shape of an acid-tongued mo-cap teddy bear aptly named Ted (voiced by MacFarlane). A brilliantly observed prologue set back in Christmas 1985 introduces the back story to Ted’s creation: namely, being the product of a wistful wish of no-mates 8-year-old Bostonian John Bennett (Bretton Manley). As the action fast forwards to the present day, it becomes apparent that Ted briefly enjoyed the limelight such a miracle would likely be afforded only for the public to rapidly lose interest in a sentient teddy, and who now resembles little more than a washed-up, drug-addled and booze-fuelled celeb.
It’s a suitably offbeat premise, and the sight of a decidedly realistic cute little teddy taking a hit from a bong or indulging in a five-way hooker session certainly raises more than a smirk. Yet all is not well. Ted’s buddy John (a luxuriating Mark Wahlberg) has grown up — well, physically at least — and is in a relationship with highflier Lori (Mila Kunis). Predictably, Ted’s playboy ways are putting their relationship under strain, and John is soon faced with a choice: best-bud Ted — who he knows is holding him back — or the love of his life.
MacFarlane understandably avoids any semblance of pathos, playing this strictly tongue-in-cheek, flitting the action rapidly from one hilarious set piece to the next, evidently more comfortable reveling in crass one-liners as opposed to anything resembling a real plot. Not that such a detail matters when said set pieces include a brutal punch-up between Ted and John and a completely ridiculous but brilliantly played running joke concerning Flash Gordon of all people.
While most of these gags hit the mark, MacFarlane’s lack of experience of writing features is sorely evidenced by his insistence on trying to flesh out a narrative. A subplot involving dad Donny (a creepily excellent Giovanni Ribisi) trying to buy Ted for his masochistic son Robert (Aedin Mincks) is clunky at best despite Ribisi’s best efforts, while Kunis is criminally underused for an actress of her comedic ability.
Elsewhere, MacFarlane sometimes sloppily resorts to fart gags and 9/11 jokes which particularly grate, given they are as topical and relevant as Encarta ’95. A tonally off-kilter and over-the-top third act feels latched-on and confused, and there’s a nagging sense that Joel McHale and Patrick Warburton as Lori’s and John’s respective bosses could have been given more to do.
While Wahlberg does a sterling job as slacker John, “Ted” undoubtedly belongs to its eponymous ursine star — and MacFarlane’s pithy quips and rightly so. Yes, “Ted” is a muddled mess of a movie, but it’s also often hilarious and inane — and it is fiercely unapologetic about the fact. Quibbles aside, MacFarlane succeeds where many other comedies (“Family Guy” included) fall flat, in that “Ted” actually delivers unashamed belly laughs aplenty — and that is ultimately what comedy should deliver as standard.