'Ted 2:' Barely a Chuckle From This Bear

The chutzpah that made 'Ted' a successful and amusing parody of American culture is missing from the sequal, where the characters are toned down and the plot is tedious.

Ted 2 Directed by Seth MacFarlane; written by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild; with Mark Wahlberg, Seth MacFarlane, Amanda Seyfried, Jessica Barth, Giovanni Ribisi, Morgan Freeman, Patrick Warburton, John Slattery

Sequels are a problem. How can you not want to continue the success of a movie like “Ted,” the 2012 hit that raked in some $550 million? Then again, how can you make a sequel to a film whose appeal lay mainly in its surprising, audacious premise, which is now widely known? That difficulty is evident in the new movie “Ted 2,” and unfortunately, the filmmakers did not confront it with much success.

“Ted” was the debut feature of Seth MacFarlane, maker of the animated television series “Family Guy.” It told the story of Johnny, a lonely 8-year-old boy who lives with his parents in a Boston suburb. When he receives a stuffed bear for Christmas, Johnny names him Ted and wishes out loud that the bear could come to life and be his friend – and it does. The prologue showing this was a parody of all the sticky Christmas movies America loves, as well as of every film ever made about a child’s wish coming true. The difference between “Ted” and many of those other movies, however, is that Johnny is not the only one who sees the bear; everyone does, and Ted soon becomes a national celebrity (he is even interviewed by Johnny Carson).

Johnny’s wish proves unusually long-lasting. Most of “Ted” takes place when he is already 35, a man-child who refuses to grow up, leading a slacker’s life full of drugs and prostitutes and preferring to spend most of his time with his bear – a crude, foul-mouthed racist and homophobe, whose presence in Boston and in Johnny’s life is seen as self-evident.

Narrative excess

From this plot center, “Ted” sent out satiric tentacles toward various aspects of American pop culture. The movie did not have much of an actual plot; its main focus was infantile male behavior, the subject of many recent comedies. The two main mistakes of “Ted 2” are its toning down of the characters of John (Mark Wahlberg) and Ted (who speaks in Seth MacFarlane’s voice) and heaping too many tedious plot elements onto the two of them. Johnny, recently divorced, is still disconnected from life, and Ted is still spewing obscenities; this time, however, the narrative excess keeps them from expressing their personalities as sharply as they did in the first movie. Johnny especially is far more colorless and ordinary than he was in “Ted.”

Like the first film, “Ted 2” takes for granted the absurd elements of the main situation. The movie opens with Ted’s wedding to Tami-Lynn, a sexy blonde who works with him as a supermarket cashier. When their marriage falters, they accept the solution offered to them, which, as everyone knows, is the worst possible way to save a relationship: they want to add a baby to their struggling family unit. Because Ted’s anatomy makes it impossible for them to procreate the regular way, they need a sperm donor. Ted and John first go to Sam Jones, star of their favorite movie, the failed 1980 picture “Flash Gordon” (in which Jones appeared alongside Israeli actor Topol, by the way), but he says his drug habit has left him with only one viable sperm. They break into the home of the football star Tom Brady, hoping to steal his sperm while he sleeps, but of course the operation devolves into bad slapstick. Only then does Ted ask John to be his donor, but this plan also falls through (more bad slapstick, this time involving a visit to a sperm bank).

Ted and Tami-Lynn decide to adopt, but it turns out that Ted has no such legal right, because he is an object, not a person. He and John then decide to wage a legal battle to prove his personhood with the help of Samantha (Amanda Seyfried), an inexperienced young human-rights lawyer. The second half of the movie is filled with fairly tedious courtroom scenes, as well as an utterly superfluous subplot involving Donny (Giovanni Ribisi), a character from the first movie, who works as a janitor for a teddy-bear manufacturer and convinces the owner to kidnap Ted and operate on him to find out how to make more human bears like him. This kidnapping is supposed to happen during a convention of superhero-loving geeks, and everything that happens there is the clumsy stuff of negligible comedy, terminally shifting “Ted 2” away from the movie it might have been.

A plot in which a bear and a woman get married and try to become parents raises the possibility that “Ted 2” might be a sharp, bold, even subversive exploration of alternatives to the traditional family so lauded in American culture (the movie was released one week before the Supreme Court’s historic ruling that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right which must be upheld in all the states). However, this possibility disappears into what the movie actually provides. Through the story of Ted’s courtroom battle, MacFarlane and his fellow filmmakers may also have been trying to provide an ironic take on the question “What is man?” But that irony does not find focused expression, either.

Like “Ted” before it, “Ted 2” is filled with jabs at American culture and history. This time, however, the jokes are meager, and some of them make troubling use of race and the history of black Americans. MacFarlane’s determination to avoid political correctness here crosses the line and becomes truly offensive (for example, Ted’s struggle not to be considered an object is compared to that of African slaves, who were their owners’ property). There is also a near-obsessive interest in black male genitalia, which has already sparked some protest in the U.S.

Both “Ted” and “Ted 2” are at once childish and sophisticated; but while the mix worked well in the first movie, whose main theme was different kinds of infantile behavior, the sequel seems to collapse between its own various intentions and moves. The result, therefore, is very flawed entertainment. I remember chuckling repeatedly at “Ted,” and even marveling at the filmmakers’ chutzpah. “Ted 2” didn’t make me chuckle even once.