The first Ted movie, about a teddy bear toy that comes to life for its boy owner, and causes major trouble when that boy becomes a grown-up, was gleefully dirty and intermittently hilarious. Its sequel takes a new direction, swapping raunch for earnestness. It’s problematic, to say the least.
Ted 2, from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane (who, of course, voices the bear), still trades very much in MacFarlane’s signature offensive-for-the-sake-of-being-offensive humor. Nothing is sacred, there’s no such thing as being too tasteless (there’s a Charlie Hebdo joke), and the whole thing has the air of “If you ain’t laughing, you have your head way too far up your own ass.” Fine. Yes. Completely to be expected for a MacFarlane production, as are the non-sequiturs that hit equally as often as they miss.
But whether or not you find MacFarlane’s brand of yuks funny or not is beside the point, because Ted 2 strives to style itself as an old-school Hollywood movie about the struggles of one little guy against a system that’s trying to keep him down. Its writer-director’s love of vintage Tinseltown has been well-documented (remember when he hosted the Oscars?), and Ted 2 telegraphs this fetish with an elaborately choreographed title sequence that would make Busby Berkeley proud. Although the opening narration, again by Patrick Stewart, tells us that “America doesn’t give a shit about anything,” the movie itself invites you to consider some pretty heavy civil rights issues, couched in the struggles of a foul-mouthed stuffed animal.
When we begin, Ted is ecstatically happy. He’s just married gum-snapping soul mate Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth), with the support of his recently-divorced best buddy John (Mark Wahlberg). Yep, you read that right; while the entire first movie was about John trying to make it work with his exasperated long-time girlfriend, the sequel is okay with brushing aside that failed pairing and relegating John to a sidekick role. The guys are still “Thunder Buddies for life!”, but Ted’s now focused on domesticity, especially when we rocket one year into the future and his life with Tami-Lynn is shown to have become one long stressful argument. The solution to saving his relationship, he decides, is that the pair should have a baby—an ambitious plan for a fella with no reproductive organs, but one that Tami-Lynn warms to immediately.
After an elaborate scheme to steal a certain celebrity athlete’s sperm goes awry, among other complications, the couple decides to adopt. And here’s where the movie takes its turn. Until now, Ted’s been roaming the world nodding yes anytime someone asks “Are you that teddy bear that came alive?”, but otherwise blending into Boston like any other regular Joe. He can meet John in a bar to bitch about women, for instance, and nobody treats him any differently or even gives him an askance glance. But Ted’s world is upended when his adoption application puts him on the government radar for the first time in, what, 30 years? In the eyes of the state, which has no wiggle room for magical acts of toy animation, he’s not a person. He’s property. He can’t hold a job or vote, and worst of all, his marriage is no longer recognized.
Things get dire, fast. Who has time for snorting coke with Flash Gordon when there’s a civil rights case to be fought? Fortunately, the guys meet a foxy lawyer named Samantha L. Jackson (Amanda Seyfried), so pop culture illiterate she doesn’t know who her namesake is, but cool enough to be a total stoner who keeps a bong at her desk. Her name might as well be “Love Interest for John,” but for the most part Ted 2 keeps its focus firmly on its subject’s legal crusade. There are the expected moments of tone-deafness (while watching Roots, Ted marvels, “That’s just like me!”) which are played for laughs, but the courtroom scenes do their very best to convey a meaningful Big-Picture Message.
Unlike the South Park movie, so cleverly scripted that its meta-narrative about censorship blended seamlessly into its fart jokes, Ted 2 screeches to a halt anytime someone decides it’s time to get sincere. Like, say, when Samantha begins her opening arguments by referencing the Dred Scott Decision. The moment is played completely straight, in a movie that has in no way earned the right to compare its shit-talking hero to a monumental figure in American history.
Because Ted being considered property isn’t enough of a conflict, Ted 2 also brings back the first film’s greasy villain, Donny (Giovanni Ribisi), to cause more trouble. Donny is still obsessed with Ted, but instead of just snatching the bear for his own sinister amusement, he’s cooked up a plan with a money-hungry Hasbro executive to twist Ted’s fight for personhood to his advantage. Once Ted’s declared an “it” and not a “he,” Donny figures, there’ll be nothing standing in his way to possess the one thing he loves more than Tiffany songs.
The Hasbro plot doesn’t quite work, though, because how will the company mass-produce a toy that’s powered by, uh, wishes? Mostly this angle seems crammed in so there’s a reason why noob lawyer Sam has to go up against a seasoned courtroom veteran, hired by Hasbro and played by Mad Men’s John Slattery—one of many celebrity cameos in a movie so stuffed with ’em it starts to feel like the casting equivalent of name-dropping by the end. (Did anyone else spend the entire movie waiting for Liam Neeson to return? They kinda set that up and failed to deliver, no?) (EDIT: Stay for all the credits, apparently, to be rewarded with additional Neesom-ness. Thanks to the comment below for clarifying!)
By the time we get to the final courtroom scene, in which Ted has proven worthy enough to be represented by a big-shot civil rights attorney played by Morgan Freeman (because of course), we’ve lurched through elaborate set pieces staged to remind the viewer that Ted 2 is a no-holds-barred R-rated comedy. So daring! So unafraid to make “homo” jokes and be mean-spirited whenever possible (first-film returnee Patrick Warburton dons his Tick costume, but it’s in service of being a nerd-punching bully at a comics convention)!
But also! Let’s all take a very serious pause to reflect on what it means to be human, with unsubtly scripted instructions delivered in the dulcet tones of Mr. Freeman. Why did Ted 2 decide to awkwardly force these themes, when it’s way more comfortable (and, it must be said, way more enjoyable) letting rip with sperm-bank sight gags and bro-down moments between Ted and John? Only MacFarlane knows. Best solution: pass Sam’s massive, penis-shaped bong and puff the memory of this misfire away.